Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2014 United States, Proceedings of the 58th Meeting of ISSS, Washington DC, USA, July 2014

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Bringing Foresight into Systems Thinking: A Three Horizon Approach

Anthony Hodgson, Gerald Midgley


A primary goal of systemic intervention is the improvement of the ‘system in question’. The definition of the system in question is often itself a function of multiple stakeholders and is not a fixed object. Boundary critique can be helpful in clarifying the ambiguity, assumptions and the power dynamics around agreeing what the system is that is to be improved and for whose interests.

However, there is another dimension of ambiguity which is time. Improvement implies some change from a present condition A to a better future condition B which eventually becomes a new present condition B. Where the environment is about to go through a significant change of pattern (a paradigm shift), the criteria of improvement will be different, depending which paradigm is being considered. For example, energy success in an unrestricted environment can be completely different from energy success in a restricted environment dominated by climate change.

In this paper we will introduce the idea of three ways of looking at the future using a method called the three horizons. It will point out three distinct ways of looking at the future, each of which will strongly colour boundary critique and therefore affect what is considered to be a successful or ‘improved’ system. The foresight framing suggests improvement to sustain the current system, improvement which is a disruptive innovation and may reconfigure the system and improvement which is transformative and may actually result in the collapse of the systems in question.

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