The Horizons of Foresight

The William Gibson quote that the future is already with us but unevenly distributed may be true, and what is also true is that Horizon 4 latent futures are with us too - but they become visible to us only when we expand our thinking, open our minds and accept the new in the present.

The Horizons of Foresight

The Three Horizons (3H) framework was developed in its current form by Sharpe and Hodgson (2006) in work undertaken for the UK Government’s Foresight Project on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems. It has been developed further by Curry and Schultz (2009); Sharpe (2013; 2015); Hodgson and Midgley (2014); Sharpe et al. (2016); and Curry (2018) (see bottom of post for references).

Horizon 1 (H1) is the dominant pattern in the present, in which all organisations and institutions, including the university, operate. This is the business-as-usual space, with activity focused on maintaining present operations. H1 is always superseded by a new pattern as the conditions of change in the external environment shift over time when the legitimacy base of existing organisations is challenged.

Horizon 2 (H2) is an intermediate space of transition  the short to medium term future where limitations of the first horizon are recognised, but where constraints exist on our ability to respond to those limitations. It is an unstable and turbulent space because it is where clashes of values arising from competing images of the future become apparent. This is the space where ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ are the prevalent pattern. Some innovations are designed to bolster H1’s survival and business-as-usual activity (termed H2 minus or H2-), while other innovations establish the groundwork for radical innovation (termed H2 plus or H2+).

Horizon 3 (H3) exists on the fringe in the present and is where the seeds of possible futures  are located – this is where the ideas, beliefs and arguments that have the potential to disrupt and displace the H1 world exist. This new thinking is likely to generate effective responses to emergent changes in an organisation’s environment and generate new visions of the future. This horizon has a worldview that is more fit-for-purpose today but it takes time to emerge so it is not often feasible or acceptable to jump from Horizon 1 to Horizon 3 into today's organisational environments.

The horizons co-exist and intersect with each other as shown in Figure 1. The horizontal axis represents time, moving from the left to right – from today into the future. The vertical axis indicates the degree of occurrence of each pattern at a given point in time.

Figure 1: The Three Horizons

The 3H framework can be used to examine an area of interest – for example, organisations, values or even social change. It provides a comprehensive approach for understanding how the business-as-usual present intersects with change that is generating a new range of possible futures, both visible and latent in nature. Critically, all three horizons co-exist in the present and all three hold a different perspective on 'the future'.

Expanding the Horizons for Futures Thinking

When I was doing my PhD, I expanded the Three Horizons to five, as shown in Figure 2. My PhD was about contested ideas of the university and how those ideas constrained the emergence of its possible futures. Usually only ideas at H0, H1 and H2 futures are accepted as plausible, which is on reason I called Horizon 3 the Dismissive Idea. The other reason was because this ideas dismisses the value of the present university type.

Figure 2: The Five Horizons of our Ideas of the University (A,B,C are intersection points) 

Here's how I described the interrelationship of the ideas:

The Traditional Idea is in the past at H0 and represents the original idea in the sense discussed in this research, once located at H1 in the pre-World War II era and now existing as the precursor of the H1 university as a residual idea. The Managerial Idea at H1 is maintaining business-as-usual activities of the university. It is ‘fit-for purpose’ and its manifestation as the neoliberal university is global. The Reframed Idea, the emerging idea at H2 is seeking to design a new university form that draws on H0 and so represents an innovation – it draws on the accepted ‘university’ form and label but has reframed them in new ways. The Dismissive Idea is emergent at H3, and with its assumption that the current university type has no future value, it is seeking to create a new, aspirational and visionary future where learning occurs in society, an approach that no longer requires the university of the present. Latent ideas exist at H4 – these are the yet to emerge ideas, that may or may not include a university as it is understood today.

In this post I'm applying this expanded frame to our futures thinking. I'm making generalisations here, so see what you think.

Horizon o is the past, an historical time that is still re-interpreted today; in this space our thinking is rarely challenged; it is the space of futures lost too, ones desired but not achieved.

Horizon 1 is our present contexts, and our thinking here will be based on our experiences, the cultures we live and work in, and how we engage with our realities and change; in this space, we usually think short-term - which is not a bad thing because we need short-term thinking to maintain current systems - but it constrains our ability to think long-term and to accept imagination as a valid source of information about our futures. In this space, plausible futures are accepted, possible futures tolerated and potential futures dismissed as impossible.

Horizon 2 are our possible futures, based on changes we experience today and the trends we assume will continue over time. This is the realm of trend watching, horizon and environmental scanning, and forecasting. Here there can be innovation of two types, one that helps to improve Horizon 1 (-H2) or that draws on the new developments in Horizon 3 (H+2). Our thinking here can be challenged depending on how open we are to new experiences, and curious we are, and whether we are ready to let go of the constraints of short-term thinking.

Horizon 3 is the emergent futures, the ones we can identify through weak signals, wildcards and the like, and new ideas - it is the space where our thinking begins to be challenged. This space I have often called the realm of the weird, the seemingly impossible, as demonstrated by the contact with aliens story I wrote about in my last post. Our thinking is tested here, so accepting the need to 'hang in there' in a futures process is important. We explore all potential futures that can be identified here and holding them in our minds as we explore beyond the present.

Horizon 4 is our latent futures, the ones yet to become visible, which Adam and Groves (2007) call the living future embedded in the present. They define a living future as:

It is neither predetermined; nor is it fully indeterminate, empty, and open to endless transformation. Rather, it is an embedded future that possesses the still-to-be-determined character of collective futures in the making (p. 198).

All horizons exist in the present and all influence on the narratives we construct when we are thinking about and imagining futures whether we recognise it or not. Yet most of our thinking, most of the time, focuses on Horizons 1 and 2, with some Horizon 3. Horizon 0 is recalled are various points in time to justify the present mostly while Horizon 4 is not often explored in any meaningful way, and it is the hardest space for us to engage with seriously because we have assumptions and biases that stop our minds moving into this seemingly crazy space.

The concept of the Five Horizons came from Joseph Voros (Figure 3), my PhD supervisor, when we had a long conversation about how the idea of the university exists both as in a diachronic form as a concept but also as fit-for-purpose synchronic variations at different times through out history.

Figure 3 The Five Horizons of the Present as developed by Joseph Voros 2020

Our H0 exists today to inform our present, and our H4 futures are shaped by our presents. H4 futures will eventually become someone else's H1 present. The horizons are like a wave of change, rising and falling over time in continuous evolution.

This framing demonstrates that all five horizons can - must? - be considered when we are thinking about and imagining our futures, including Horizon 5 which asks us to expand our thinking in ways that allow us to imagine possible futures yet to be found. Not all futures processes will include the five horizons though, and that's okay as long as we know which horizons we are exploring and why.

The William Gibson quote that the future is already with us but unevenly distributed may be true, and what is also true is that Horizon 4 latent futures are with us too - but they become visible to us only when we expand and deepen our thinking and challenge our assumptions so we can open our minds and accept the new in the present. And being able to do that starts with each one of us, reflecting on how we think about how we think about futures, why we accept some futures and reject others, and whether we are willing to let go of what we know to explore the unknown to ensure we develop sustainable futures, the ones 'the future' needs.

Your comments on this positioning of the horizons are very welcome.

In a more recent discussion with Joseph Voros about this, he reminded me of his post on scanning and a H4 scanning space which he is calling over the horizon scanning - which opens up the space for five scanning categories/types/spaces for the five horizons:

H0 = past/history
H1 = organisation and market
H2 = industry
H3 = societal/macro/global
H4 = over the horizon

Exploring that topic needs another post.


Adam, B. and Groves C., (2007) Future matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics, Brill.

Sharpe, B. and Hodgson (2006) Foresight intelligent infrastructure futures: Technology forward look, Foresight Directorate London.

Curry, A. and Schultz, W., (2009), Roads less travelled: Different methods, different futures Journal of Futures Studies, 13(4), 35-60.

Sharpe, B. (2013) Three Horizons: The patterning of hope, Triarchy Press.

Sharpe, B. (2015), Three Horizons and working with change, Compass Methods Anthology, pp 9-11.

Hodgson, A. and Midgley, G., (2014), Bringing foresight into systems thinking: a Three Horizons approach, Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the ISSS 2014.

Sharpe et al. (2016), Three horizons: a pathways practice for transformation, Ecology and Society, 47, 21(2).

Curry. A. (2018), Searching for systems in the three horizons model, Medium.