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Using the Three Horizons Framework with storytelling to explore narratives of change towards positive futures

Artworks created by a local artist based on the workshop discussions. They represent each of the three horizons. Artist: Julia Roche. Photos: Jack of Hearts/Jackie Cooper

It is widely acknowledged that business-as-usual practices are not an option and will only accelerate anthropogenic climate change and the global biodiversity crisis. However, the sustainability community is struggling with negative future projections and there is an urgent need to create and promote positive visions of more sustainable futures. Such positive visions can be useful to provide direction and inspire change. So the question is: How can local communities create those visions to improve biodiversity outcomes on the ground?

Schaal et al. (2023) propose the Three Horizons Framework. The Three Horizons Framework is a participatory tool to futures development and consists of three overlapping horizons.

Horizon 1 is our current business-as-usual system. Horizon 3 is the desired future state that we want. Horizon 2 is the transition space between the current system and the desired future. “These three horizons can be understood as an ‘orientating heuristic,’ bringing focus and awareness to different patterns of change and the disconnect between the current situation and the desired future” (Schaal et al., 2).

The Three Horizons Framework complements widely applied methods of future studies, including scenario planning, visioning, and backcasting. These methods have their strengths, but also a few weaknesses. The Three Horizons Framework helps explore peoples’ role in bringing about change by simultaneously considering the present and the future systems in a highly-participatory manner.

The goal of the paper was two-fold. First, to provide an easy-to-follow guide for how the Three Horizons Framework with storytelling can help explore different trajectories of change. Second, to develop positive futures with a rural community and identify opportunities for improving biodiversity outcomes in agricultural landscapes. To this end, the authors conducted a place-based case study in the Muttama Creek Catchment in south-eastern Australia in cooperation with the Muttama Creek Landcare Group.

The Muttama Creek Catchment is a typical mixed-farming area, i.e. with both cropping and grazing, and is facing the combined problems of an aging population, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Due to the temperate climate zone, farms in this agricultural landscape have a relatively high commercial value. However, since the onset of industrial agriculture, much of the native grassy woodlands have been cleared, leaving mostly patches of native habitats.

The area is also projected to face challenges that will have an impact on both biodiversity and farming. Due to climate change, the area is expected to see higher temperatures in the future, with more rain in the summer and less rain in all other seasons. This is projected to lead to lower agricultural production by 2030 and a decrease in profitability.

The research process encompassed two workshops. Two full-day workshops were conducted using Three Horizons combined with a story-telling approach to explore changes toward desirable futures. Additionally, the researchers used questionnaires to understand whether the workshop participants considered Three Horizons a useful tool for achieving these positive futures.

In the first workshop, participants were asked to:

1. Identify signs that the current system is not viable in the long run (Horizon 1).

2. Identify the drivers behind these unsustainable trajectories.

3. Discuss what aspects they would like to retain from the current system.

4. Identify characteristics of a desirable future (without specifying a particular time frame) (Horizon 3).

5. Identify examples of a desirable future that exists already today.

In the second workshop, participants developed future pathways where key issues in the current system (Horizon 1) were bridged with desirable characteristics of the future (Horizon 3) through project ideas developed during the workshops (Horizon 2). The figure below shows the overall workshop process and the guiding questions for each step.

During the second workshop, workshop participants worked in groups and developed six pathways of change. The groups used storyboards to develop their project ideas, considering barriers and opportunities, and narrate their respective pathways. The research team also invited an interpretive artist to join the discussions and create artwork as an alternative way to engage with the futures that came out of the discussions.

After the second workshop, the storylines that the groups had narrated orally were written up. These narratives are storylines of change and are informative to understand different imaginary futures and ways to get there. The narratives all have different end goals and highlight the sequence of changes necessary to achieve these end goals.

The below figure shows the different pathways developed by groups of workshop participants.

Overall, the research team summarized that “[t]he workshops, and their outcomes do, however, offer multiple points to engage with change, allowing different people depend on their values, skills, and agency to decide where and how they will engage.” The research showed that the Three Horizons Framework, in combination with storytelling, is useful for creating narratives of positive change that help identify ways for improving biodiversity.

If you would like to learn more about the specifics of each horizon or about the authors’ experiences with the application of the Three Horizon Framework, you can read the full paper HERE.

Schaal, T., Mitchell, M., Scheele, B. C., Ryan, P., & Hanspach, J. (2023). Using the three horizons approach to explore pathways towards positive futures for agricultural landscapes with rich biodiversity. Sustainability Science, 1-19.


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