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The Three Horizons Framework

Three Horizons (3H), originally developed by futurist Bill Sharpe, is a framework for creating a shared vision of a new system and a plan for moving towards it.

It is a simple and effective tool that lets you and your stakeholders move away from focusing on current problems and instead envisage the system you want to build, before then considering what may be needed to bring about that new system.

Each of the three horizons, plotted on a graph like the image on the right, represents a different phase in the lifespan of a system.

  • Horizon 1 (H1) represents the current system, or the paradigm of ‘business as usual’.
  • Horizon 2 (H2) represents innovations which, if appropriately developed, can help bring about a different system.
  • Horizon 3 (H3) represents the desired future system.

These horizons are not sequential. We can be dealing with elements of each simultaneously.

For example, at a global level, we live within a consumer capitalist system based on natural resource extraction (H1). However, within that system, there are those envisaging different systems (H3)– such as communities trying to live “off-grid” according to principles of ecological sustainability. There are innovations now that can help move towards those new systems, e.g. permaculture (H2).

The Three Horizons framework is designed to help you and your stakeholders conceptualise these phases, and in doing so plot a path towards changing your systems.

Benefits and uses of Three Horizons

Three Horizons is a useful tool for teams and stakeholders seeking to bring about different ways of working over the long-term. It helps you to plot out where you are, where you want to get to, and how to move between these two places. For example, the case study below describes how teams of health practitioners in Scotland used Three Horizons to help them change their system of elderly health care over a period of 10 years.

The framework offers the following benefits:

  • Accessible: Part of the appeal of Three Horizons is its simplicity. It is fairly easy to understand and doesn’t require technical knowledge; although it can be helpful to get an experienced Three Horizons facilitator to help manage the process, particularly if it involves external stakeholders.
  • Collaborative: It provides a focal point around which you can convene stakeholders to envisage new systems together, which can be motivating and energising, before then considering the practical steps you make take together towards creating that change.
  • Pragmatic: Three Horizons does not demonise the current system. It emphasises that elements of any current system (H1) will be needed in any new system and encourages users to think about which elements of H1 are “luggage” (the things they want to take with them) and which are “baggage” (the things they want to leave behind).


Three Horizons is best used when setting your vision, although it can then be referred back to throughout your subsequent implementation process. It is a preliminary design tool rather than a detailed planning tool, so it’s best to combine it with a tool such as Theory of Change which can take the emerging ideas through a more granular process.

“3H encourages you to look in both directions. We must be hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new. Most tools encourage the latter and ignore the former. 3H encourages both.”

Graham Leicester

International Futures Forum

Case Study: SHINE, Fife

In 2001 in Fife, Scotland, a group of health practitioners, facing a system of elderly health care unable to cope with winter pressures, convened to envisage what a different system for structuring and delivering care might look like.

The group used Three Horizons to map the landscape and explore alternatives.  They explored H3 and sought examples of an aspirational future system already in existence. This led them to the Nuka healthcare system in Alaska, based on indigenous models of community care. The team visited and got to know the Nuka leaders, using their system as inspiration for their own transformation process. They explored the differences in approach and underlying values between their H1 and the desired H3, and devised a series of success paths to get the “best of both worlds”, introducing the new in the presence of the old. These pathways became the basis for their H2 and formed the overall design of the SHINE project

SHINE focused on a shift in culture, building strong, one-to-one relationships with patients, understanding their interests and goals.  They moved from an approach of “what’s the matter with you” to “what matters to you?” and acted on the answers they received. Requests could be as simple as returning to things they had done before they got ill, such as going to the bowling club. Health professionals worked alongside patients, families, neighbours and local activity providers to find ways of helping patients achieve their goals. Alongside clinical care, their role was to support overall wellness, focusing on helping people to ‘thrive, not just survive’, which depends on feeling connected, purposeful and engaged.

SHINE had a small innovation grant to start their pilot and had only worked with six people with their new model after a year.  Despite the risk of losing funding with such low numbers, the team– a cross-sector group of practitioners– believed in the approach. They had been encouraged with the results in those few cases and understood the long-term nature of the process.  In the following years, they worked with dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of people. Within six years they had worked with over 30,000 patients using this new model of care. As they had envisaged in their early 3H process, their new approach had become the standard approach for healthcare in Fife: H3 had become H1.

Evaluations of the project showed its extraordinary impact, leading to local and national recognition. It has seeded and inspired many similar initiatives and spread to other areas of clinical practice. Three Horizons played a key role in helping this transformation process.

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Using the Three Horizons Approach

You can use the Three Horizons template graphic, or the table version, to apply the 3H framework to the issue you are working with. These templates can be downloaded from the resources section.

We recommend conducting this exercise in group sessions. If doing this in-person, you may want to print or draw a large paper version of this diagram and allow participants to add post-its under each section. Alternatively, you could use online whiteboard software and import the graphic.

In your process, consider these five elements of the H1 to H3 transition:

  1. Present concerns (baggage) – H1: What are the signs that the current system is no longer fit for the present. What should we leave behind?
  2. Desired system – H3: What would you like the system to look and feel like?
  3. Inspiring examples – H3: Where are these hoped-for features already happening, even if only on a small scale, within or outside the current system?
  4. Promising innovations – H2: What innovations are already contributing to system transition by creating the conditions for H3 to grow? What are you or others doing that is helping with this system transition? What’s missing?
    NB: Most innovations are just prolonging existing systems, perhaps by improving efficiency. These are referred to as ‘H2-’ (H2 minus), while innovations that are helping usher in a new system are H2+. For example, innovations that make industrial farming more efficient but further damage ecosystems are H2-, while sustainable agriculture innovations supporting greater biodiversity would be H2+.
  5. Enduring features (luggage) – H1: What should we retain from the current system as we move into the future?

Three voices exercise

When doing a Three Horizons process, people tend to gravitate towards the third horizon­­– the new system, and the role and value of H1 and H2 can be missed. Three Horizons emphasises that all the horizons are needed in the transition to new systems.

Doing a ‘Three Voices’ exercise can help balance this out. Once you have defined your 3H vision, participants role-play characters in each horizon. For example, a H1 character may might be a current business manager; H2 might be an innovator with a new concept. Inhabiting these roles helps participants understand and draw out the value of each horizon. It also helps them engage better with individuals in the real world whose current affiliation is to other horizons.

See Leaders Quest for further info.

Systems Practice Toolkit

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