Three Horizons: A way of working with change

Posted by sustainable on October 28, 2013

Sustainable learning is not just about learning about the past – it is also about the role of learning in creating a more sustainable future.

This raises important questions about how we can think about creating such a future. For example how we can work with people from diverse backgrounds, expertise, and worldviews to come to a shared vision of the future?   How can we work constructively with the problems our society faces that defy analysis and demand that we learn our way together into the future respecting both our knowledge and our ignorance of what to do?   Over the last few years the Three Horizons framework has emerged as a way of helping people with these kinds of challenges.

Three Horizons is a way of working with transformational change, drawing attention towards systemic patterns rather than individual events or unexamined trends; it frames the discussion in terms of the shift from the established patterns of the first horizon to the emergence of new patterns in the third, via the transition activity of the second.

Untitled1A simple linear way of thinking about change places us in the present moment looking towards how we want things to be in future – placing the future outside the present moment, something that might or might not happen, and appearing in the guise of the unknown or unknowable and the risky. Yet we act with future intent all the time, linking what we are doing now to future outcomes.  The central idea of Three Horizons, and what makes it so useful, is that it draws attention to the three horizons as existing always in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now.

By making these qualitative distinctions between the three horizons in the present, a lot of dynamics of change come into view quite naturally, and we are led to explore them in terms of the patterns of behaviour of those who are maintaining or creating them. This leads to the additional benefit, that we can reflect on our own intentions towards those patterns in the process of exploring the behaviour and intent that is revealed in each horizon.

Three Horizons thinking offers a way to find and shape our own intentions more clearly as we look over the first horizon of the known towards the second and third horizons of innovation and transformation towards the future.  It transforms our perception of the future potential of the present moment by revealing each horizon as a different quality already existing in the present, and which might develop depending on how we choose to act – to maintain the familiar or pioneer the new. The outcome of Three Horizons work is a map of transformational potential which enables us to act with more skill, freedom and creativity in the present, both individually and together.

H1: The first horizon

The first horizon describes the current way of doing things, and the way we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to. H1 systems are what we all depend on to get things done in the world. Throughout the day we make use of a myriad societal systems – shops, schools, banks, hospitals, transport – and most of the time we don’t want, or need, to think about them too much; we all help perpetuate the system by taking part in it. While we talk a lot about the pace of change, it is worth remembering that lots of things must stay the same for daily life to go on. Innovation and change in our H1 systems is happening, but it is about sustaining and extending the way things are done now in a planned and orderly way; uncertainties and risks are to be eliminated or prepared for – the lights must be kept on.

Nothing lasts forever, and over time we inevitably find that our H1 ways of doing things are falling short – no longer meeting expectations, failing to move towards new opportunities, or out of step with emerging conditions. More than that, we have a sense that our H1 methods of improvement and innovation do not ever get us where we want to go and are just sustaining the old approach with its failings; that approach is losing its ‘fitness for purpose’.

H2: The second horizon

The second horizon is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibilities of the third horizon. New ways of doing things emerge in messy ways, brought about through some combination of deliberate action and opportunistic adaptation in the light of circumstances.  Entrepreneurs must judge the moment, and bring together ideas and resources to try a new way of doing things here and now. They live in an ambiguous territory where the old ways are dominant but the new is becoming possible; they can look to the past and fit in with familiar patterns of life, or try to become the seed that grows into the new. Entrepreneurship is hard and most attempts to do new things fail; it is much easier to serve the old systems, and established H1 players typically dominate.

H3: The third horizon

The third horizon is the future system. It is those new ways of living and working that will fit better with the emerging need and opportunity. H3 change is transformative, bringing a new pattern into existence that is beyond the reach of the H1 system. There will be many competing visions of the future and early pioneers are likely to look quite unrealistic – and some of them are. As we build our own Three Horizons map we bring our own vision to bear and take a view on how it relates to the visions of others and the trends that are playing out for all of us.

Convening the future

So, from this simple Three Horizons framework we get three things:

a way to look at the processes of change that encourages us to see deeper patterns of systemic change beneath surface events
a way to make the future accessible in the present in the form of the intent and actions that are bringing it about
a way to bring all the voices of continuity and change into play as part of the discussion, as expressed in their intent towards the patterns.
Three Horizons is a way to think about the future that recognises deep uncertainty but responds with an active orientation. It allows us to understand more clearly how our own and other people’s actions might shape the future we are exploring. This is especially important when we look at issues of broad societal concern, where we are all actors in the future. Here we are particularly concerned to find ways for the many different constituencies in society to come together to unlock the future from the dominance of old ways of doing things – ways that are no longer working for us.

Over the last few years many people have started using the Three Horizons framework as a way to work on their issues and in the International Futures Forum we’ve been talking to them about why it works.   All of them speak of the way it separates things out in a helpful way and improves the dialogue, because people can see where they are and can avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict between the three horizons.  It turns out to be quite natural, in almost any situation where people are working on some complex issue, to gently bring out the three ‘voices’ of the horizons:

the managerial voice that is concerned with the first horizon responsibility for keeping things going
the entrepreneurial voice of the second horizon that is eager to get on and try new things (some of which won’t work)
the aspiration and vision of the third horizon voice that holds out for commitment to a better way and the opportunity that can be imagined in the mind’s eye.
The Three Horizons approach is aligned with these three forms of awareness which everybody can adopt towards the future. By default, many people inhabit just one horizon in their work, and view other horizons with perplexity, misunderstanding or hostility. However, everyone has a natural capacity to work with the other horizons, and the core of Three Horizons practice is the flexibility to work with all three modes of awareness at the same time.

Once different groups are able to see which horizon dominates their thinking they can also see how it relates to the others.    For example, a passionate H3 advocate for renewable energy may easily forget what it feels like to have H1 responsibilities for keeping the lights on, and in return the H1 thinker, dominated by current concerns, can regard the H3 protagonist as simply irrelevant to their pressing needs. The H2 entrepreneur may be drawing their inspiration from the third horizon, but is also having to judge when the time is right to challenge the H1 organisations for dominance, or instead to work with them.

This is the core idea of Three Horizons – to shift from our simple, one-dimensional view of time stretching into the future and instead adopt a three-dimensional point of view in which we become aware of each horizon as a distinct quality of relationship between the future and the present. We call the move into this multi-dimensional view, and the skill to work with it, the step into future consciousness: an awareness of the future potential of the present moment.

As people make this step individually they can also make it together – developing a shared culture of future consciousness that in turn opens up a greater freedom of action.   International Futures Forum is working to bring about the emergence of such a culture through the provision of resources and expertise to support Three Horizons practice.

Untitled2Bill Sharpe is an independent researcher in science, technology and society. He was a research director at Hewlett Packard Laboratories where he led research into everyday applications of technology and introduced scenario methods to HP to support long-range research and innovation. With a background in psychology he is particularly interested in drawing on leading edge research in cognition and systems thinking to find new ways of tackling complex problems. He is a member of the International Futures Forum and has worked with them to develop the Three Horizons framework for futures.

Read more in Bill Sharpe’s book Three Horizons: the patterning of hope, and an extended case study of its use in education in Transformative Innovation in Education: a playbook for pragmatic visionaries, by Graham Leicester et al, from Triarchy Press.


This summary of Three Horizons makes use of material from Three Horizons: the patterning of hope (Sharpe 2013) by permission of International Futures Forum.

The first published version of a three horizons model was in the management book The Alchemy of Growth (Baghai, Coley et al. 2000). The idea of using the three horizons as three orientations to the future in the present was introduced at the Intelligent Infrastructure Futures project (Sharpe and Hodgson 2006) and (Hodgson and Sharpe 2007). The evolution of the approach presented in this book, and its relationship to other futures techniques such as scenario planning, is described in (Curry, Hodgson et al. 2008) which provides a good list of references for those with a technical interest in the futures field.

Baghai, M., Coley, S., et al. (2000). The alchemy of growth: practical insights for building the enduring enterprise, San Frncisco, CA: Perseus Publishing.

Curry, A., Hodgson, A., et al. (2008). ‘Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy’. Journal of Futures Studies 13(1): 1-20.

Hodgson, A. and Sharpe, B. (2007). ‘Deepening Futures with System Structure’. Scenarios for Success: Turning Insight into Action, Sharpe, B. and Van der Heijden, K. (eds.), Chichester: John Wiley.

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

Sharpe, B. and Hodgson, A. (2006). Intelligent Infrastructure Futures: Technology Forward Look, Foresight Directorate, London: UK Dept of Trade & Industry.

Transcending Boundaries: Students and Sustainability in Higher Education

Posted by sustainable on October 18, 2013

If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people — students — should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.

Imagine if students, at the beginning of their studies at university, were challenged to ask themselves the seemingly simple questions: Why am I here? And what is higher education for? At the same time, imagine if they were introduced to the many urgent challenges facing humanity and the future of life on this planet. Then, what if students themselves were given the opportunity to propose, develop and organize their own education, based on their newly acquired insights about themselves and the state of the world?

What would it look like? What knowledge and skills would they aim to acquire? Who would they bring in to be their lecturers, teachers, mentors? Which societal actors would they engage with? What would the learning environment look like? What questions would they ask? What solutions to local and global sustainability challenges would they come up with? And perhaps most importantly: how would students, and in extension our future societies, change through this kind of empowering process?

In Uppsala, Sweden, this is happening. For more than 20 years, students from all disciplinary backgrounds from the city’s two universities have gathered at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), to co-create the higher education of their dreams. Just as in Bologna in the 11th Century, where the very idea of the university was born, students themselves in Uppsala are the conveners and at the core of developing the curriculum. Students are hired to work in close collaboration with teachers, researchers and practitioners, to plan and coordinate the wide range of transdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate courses offered at the centre. Perhaps the most radical characteristic of CEMUS is the degree to which students are given agency and treated as intellectual equals – all within a fairly rigid and tradition-laden university structure.

So what then, does student-initiated, student-coordinated education for sustainability look like in practice?

Transcending boundaries

Courses created at CEMUS are inherently trandisciplinary and bring up new and emerging issues that no single department, faculty or discipline can address by themselves. The breadth of the content of their content can be illustrated by just a few of the course titles: Climate Change Leadership, Sustainable Design, Philosophy of Life and Actors and Strategies for Change. Transcending boundaries is not only evidenced in the content of the course work, but also in the learning environment itself where conventional hierarchy between learners and teachers is replaced with reciprocity.

Critical thinking

The desire to seek out opposing viewpoints, or constructing them if they don’t exist, is hardly a dominant characteristic of our current educational system. At CEMUS, students are continuously exposed to a plethora of different perspectives which, at its best, leads to a deep investigation of the values, worldviews, power relations, and ethics at the root of our human predicament. This also entails students to look within, to look back or to contradict their own worldview. At times, this can be an uncomfortable process, especially if students come to the conclusion that the way we think and do things is wrong or potentially harmful. Uncomfortable as it may be, this may be one of the main reasons that student-run education has the potential to be so transformative and really change what students and teachers know and believe about sustainability.

Creative and Reflective action

Besides gaining new theoretical knowledge and insights, the courses are designed for students to gain applicable skills and the courage to take action. By developing proficiency in systems thinking, innovation processes, creative thinking, heterogeneous methods for analyzing, structuring and solving problems, diverse modes of communication, project management tools and a deeper understanding of self, students seem to become better equipped for creative and reflective action in their lives.

A revolutionary learning process

Most education is seen as a process of learning more, of acquiring more knowledge, skills and tools. However, at CEMUS much of the learning would perhaps better be described as a process of unlearning and reevaluating knowledge already acquired. In recent years, norm-critical and anti-oppressive forms of learning have also gained a stronger presence in several courses. In the best cases, this can lead to an emancipatory learning process that brings out the genius in every individual. One of the most exciting aspect of this type of education is that students and teachers can start questioning, challenging, and transforming other learning and work situations in which they find themselves.

Changing the world through collaboration and co-creation

Besides the 20 plus courses that are offered at the centre a subunit within the organization, CEMUS Forum, serves as a meeting place for students, teachers and the wider community outside the university. It aims to be a catalyst for change, an incubator for regional and global innovation that contributes to sustainability by partnering with businesses, civil society organizations, the public sector and more.

So why is the educational model at CEMUS so successful? Here are just a few observations that might shed a little light on this question:

  • Hiring the most engaged students from previous years as course coordinators for the next year’s courses, leads to learning processes that are adapted to students’ interests and needs.
  • Students hired as course coordinators are given both freedom and a large responsibility. In teams of two, they quickly grow into very competent organizers of higher education – passionate and committed to creating the best courses possible.
  • The education is a result of co-creation between faculty and students: the process is a source of inspiration, as well as intellectually and practically challenging, to everyone involved.
  • The courses are complimentary and help to put the students’ previous studies in a broader and meaningful context. Students that find CEMUS are often frustrated with the shortcomings of earlier education and seeking a learning environment that is more interactive, inspiring and meaningful.
  • The organization is dynamic and ever changing due to a constant inflow of new students as course coordinators, two times each year.
  • CEMUS has become a pedagogical experimental lab for active student participation and didactic renewal at the university, with a constant momentum to improve, remix and innovate based on what seems to work.

So, does CEMUS really live up to all of its claims? Based on the many evaluations, comments, and reflections from students, the courses provide some of the most meaningful and relevant higher education that they have experienced. As one recent student expressed it:

The best thing with this education is that it really takes you into the depth of things, aiming to understand the underlying reasons to environmental degredation and other problems of civilization. Furthermore, the courses have meant a lot to me – I feel that I have been studying something important, I feel wonderful.

However, despite the apparent benefits of CEMUS educational model, there are a number of issues that need to be studied in more detail. There are many obstacles to creating the critical and creative education that I’ve described. For example, students ambitions and goals with their studies are not always aligned with the high ambition of the organizers at CEMUS, and the quality of the papers and projects produced can be highly variable. Another major institutional obstacle has been the difficulty to create and develop a research environment at the centre that is just as transdisciplinary and creative as the educational environment. Attempts have been made but with limited success.

Up until now, very little actual research has been done on the educational model and the learning taking place in the courses and in the organization. However, there is an increasing interest from educators and educational researchers around the world to study the model and potentially develop similar initiatives at other universities. Student-run education for sustainability is just in its infancy and has a long and exciting journey ahead to meet its full potential.



Isak Stoddard’s professional work for the last few years has mainly dealt with transdisciplinary Education for Sustainable Development, with an emphasis on experiential, transformative and lifelong learning. He is acting Programme Director and educational coordinator at the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a student-initiated, and mostly student-run centre at the University of Uppsala and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. His educational background is in engineering physics, systems technology and energy systems. Isak has worked in Asia, North America and Europe on issues related to renewable energy, environmental degradation, children’s rights, human trafficking and alternative development paths.

How does the community we belong to help us learn, and enable us to shape our community?

Posted by sustainable on August 9, 2013 

When Ioan Fazey suggested I contribute a blog post to Sustainable Learning, it seemed like a great opportunity to interview John David Smith, whom I’ve learned so much from about learning. I recorded this interview and edited this transcription for brevity and clarity.

John David Smith was born and raised in Humacao, Puerto Rico. He first studied architecture at the University of New Mexico. He became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975 and worked at the University of Colorado for more than 20 years. He’s been the community steward for CPsquare, an international community of people who are involved in communities of practice as leaders, researchers, or consultants, conducting workshops with Etienne Wenger and others on learning from a social theory perspective.  He is the co-author of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White, and he currently serves as the Interim Communications Director for the Portland Oregon Shambhala Center.




HS: John, how is that your focus came to be on learning? Why learning, per se?

JS: Well, I remember as a child growing up in Puerto Rico, I listened to Americans and Puerto Ricans talking past each other. And meanwhile, missionary doctors would just show up from the States and be able to talk shop with my father. The contrast seemed completely fascinating to me.

Then, when I was working at the University of Colorado, where I focused on using administrative records to support decision making, I found that there were, in effect, communities around different data sets. There were people who understood admissions data, who had no idea about how budget or finance worked or what it really meant. So that made me want to ask: Is there a way of learning across these communities? How could it happen? And how does it not happen? What are the forces that keep one part of an organization out of the business of some other part?

Another theme was seeing how the process of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West involved a kind of learning that was incommensurate with learning in schools. It involved personal practice and experience — and also, on a social level, a whole messy process of figuring out: Do social forms that made sense in a medieval culture work in Boulder, Colorado, or not?


HS: Were you involved in the Buddhist community in Boulder?

JS: Yes, I moved there in 1975 — having read a book! — but also with the intuition that, this isn’t quite book learning. I remember having that thought.


HS: What’s the difference between book learning and — other forms of learning? Learning as practice? What’s the appropriate counterpoint?

JS: Book learning for me, at that time, meant discussing the books as we did at St. John’s College. Whereas the whole enterprise of Tibetan Buddhism was much more “mind-in-body,” asking: “How do I show up in the world?”

Early on, the social element was not so explicit. Trungpa Rinpoche’s students were very individually motivated: “I’m here for my spiritual practice and goals.” Now, in traditional texts, a Bodhisattva vow clearly is about “all sentient beings” — and that’s a great example of book learning. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, I take that vow,” and then go back to doing my individual thing.

Then, over the years, it became more clear that there was a kind of social learning component to what Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about. He was talking about transforming society on a deep level that contested the Western notion of individualism, contested the Western stance of mind-in-opposition-to-body, and communicated the idea that “I am the product of all the causes and conditions around me.”


HS: You mentioned the notion of community, which brings up the question of how community pertains to learning or social learning. Are recognized communities necessary for social learning?

JS: Well, I think “community” is a fiction is some ways — it’s whatever we want to mean by that term. And different people have both different definitions and different experiences of community. It’s a constructed concept. But, from the other side, that construction can have real value. I find it interesting to note in retrospect how many little communities Trungpa Rinpoche spawned to hold and carry forward different facets of his teaching.


HS: And do you find that the perception of belonging to a community is correlated to a perception of learning?

JS: Well, one definition that Etienne Wenger talked about in one of the online seminars we did is that acommunity of practice is the experience of social learning that becomes expressed as a social formation. That’s a whole bunch of squishy but important ideas linked together. The experience of learning and the experience of connection can take place along different vectors. Whether I see myself as a member of the community might precede or follow other important kinds of acquisitions: of identity, of knowledge, or competence — or as membership in opposition to another community.

Last week, in a webinar with people studying social media in The Netherlands, in order to get away from the baggage that the term learning carries, I asked them to talk about how they had been influenced. In that conversation, one of the things that came out was that people did not always know when they were being influenced or not. So it’s my hypothesis that, “When did learning happen?” is a very problematic question to answer. And yet causing and even scheduling learning is conventionally taken for granted in the field of education.


HS: You’re equating learning with the perception of being influenced?

JS: Yes, through some interaction over time.

And a community itself defines what learning is — whether we’re learning to pick people’s pockets or to bring environmental awareness onto the agenda of our local community.


HS: And if the group is defined by the boundaries of an academic discipline, then competence is defined by understandings of biology or physics or whatever, and that competence is defined in relation to the world around us?

JS: Yes, the world around us as perceived by those communities, but still in relation to communities. Communities define competence. Competence, and membership, often become a contested calls.

I think part of what’s going on here is that our language inevitably floats concepts up to the status of being externally real, and what we’re trying to do in the conversation around communities of practice and — for that matter — in Buddhism, is to remind ourselves that concepts like competence are, in effect, mental events. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we can’t hone them, and fight about them, and grow them, and make them more useful.


HS: Your book with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White is called Digital Habitats, yet you place such a strong emphasis on the subtleties of learning. Do you see a lot of potential for digital habitats?

I think the digital habitat is interpenetrated with how we live. We saw it as a little more separate back when we were writing the book. Today, just look right here: you have an Air and a digital recording device; I brought an iPad and a cell phone. All of that is together in our experience and shapes our expectations and sense of meaning about this conversation, as does our environment, in your backyard, under this cherry tree.

As people’s activities move online, then looking over each others’ shoulders in those online activities becomes somewhat more feasible, but there’s always a question of, “Do I see on my screen what you see on yours?” These interfaces create illusions of what’s possible and what’s there. It’s a very difficult thing to see the technology from the perspective of an outsider or of someone who’s coming onboard to a community.


HS: What’s the value of looking over another person’s shoulder? Or of having one’s shoulder looked over?

Looking over someone’s shoulder, you get to see practice, you get to see expertise, you get to see human activity in its richness and ambiguity. And it’s definitely a collaborative thing to look over someone’s shoulder. When you do that, it’s typically not didactically organized around a linear text or curriculum. It’s organized around practice, around doing something. And the logic of doing is very rich and kind of unfathomable in some ways. Acquiring the logic of doing happens gradually and iteratively. The word apprenticeship comes to mind here.

From the other side, the value of having someone look over your shoulder is confirming, and the conversational aspect, when someone asks, “Why do you do that?” That can illuminate our own practice.

In Situated Learning, the original frame around a community of practice was somewhat hierarchical. People who are competent are at the center; those who aren’t are outside and move toward the center. A more dynamic frame that Etienne explored in his 1998 book is that the world has multiple communities of practice. Sometimes an outsider pulls the community in a different direction; and sometimes the community pulls an outsider in. That dynamic of who pulls who is very complex. It points to the idea that the center is both imaginary and emergent, changing over time. And so is the periphery.


HS: Could you talk a little about other influences on your thinking?

JS: Well, in the generation before Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning, there was Vygotsky, who as a Marxist set the context for a lot with his focus on zone of proximal development and perfectibility of society.


HS: “Zone of proximal development”?

JS: He was getting at the notion of: What are you ready to learn? What’s in the periphery of your understanding that — if you were exposed to or interacted with — you could figure out? One of the benefits of looking over someone else’s shoulder is that you learn what you’re able to learn, picking stuff out from the many elements before you.


HS: Like an individual-scale “adjacent possibility.”

JS: Yes, exactly.

And a very important person in this whole inquiry has been Jean Lave, who looked at learning from a cross-cultural perspective. Among other things, she asked: How do people learn to reason quantitatively or — as we learn in school in the West — to do arithmetic? And what do those activities mean? And how is competence defined? And what does schooling do to our notions of competence?

Her recent book, Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice, is a wonderful example of sustained attention — that she could focus attention over five summers in the early 80s of conducting interviews with tailors in Liberia, thinking critically about the quantitative tests she gave them, then working to make sense of it over some thirty years, and finally letting us look over her shoulder. It’s really quite a feat, it seems to me.

It’s an example of mind looking at itself, which is a fundamental theme in Buddhism as well. What are the tricks that we do to ourselves? And what enables us to see our own thinking? In Shambhala, that’s the key argument: Looking at our own thinking is not an optional thing at this point in human history.


HS: Because?

JS: Because our technical capacities to affect the planet and to affect each other …


HS: Have outpaced our ability to be reflective on these things?

JS: Yeah, right, or to organize the level of reflection that’s needed. The board of directors of a big bank can be very reflective about what they’re doing on their own behalf. But do they take a broader view?  Society as a whole has to have a way of bridging across differently focused communities. The whole community of practice conversation is about saying: If you start by looking at knowledge as a social phenomenon, competence as a social phenomenon, then you get a different picture of the world — not only of how it works, but also about its possibilities.

So, rewiring the world socially actually has great promise.


HS: “Rewiring”?

JS: Well, that’s an image from the digital habitats conversation — about inducing the kinds of conversations that have been prevented by technology or habit or social separations or jargon. One of the things that you look at in your work is the way that jargon is very powerful. When it faces one way, it’s good for digging into a subject; when it faces the other, it’s exclusionary, confusing, and can be very problematic evidence for those who “don’t get it.”


HS: And can lead to assumptions about how learning takes place, through the metaphor of “knowledge transfer.”

JS: Exactly! What’s pernicious about that metaphor — apart from the fact that it doesn’t work at all — is that it creates an illusion that we have served those who have, say, downloaded the PDF file. Maybe we have, but we just don’t know. Often, we just can’t pinpoint when learning happens.


HS: Is there such a thing as “design for learning”?

JS: I think so. I think it comes down to extending an invitation to conversation, to looking at your intentions as you participate in the conversation and in the world, and to doing all that with as much scrupulousness and precision as we can muster.

It may require a special jargon to look at our intentions. Jargon is everywhere. And jargon is sharpened in communities. But jargon is useful for asking: What am I doing in the world? And what is the sustained attention that guides my actions in the world? As actors in larger social learning systems, are we out to promote our own conclusions, our own actions and brand — or are we out to enable something larger than ourselves individually?


HS: And this takes place at an organizational level, as well as an individual level, right?

JS: Absolutely.


HS: So, what types of organizations — whether agencies, businesses, nonprofits — have been good at learning? Are there any individual examples that come to mind?

JS: Well, I don’t know. But my hypothesis would be that effective communities are sometimes contained in but often cross organizational boundaries. Organizations can do something to sustain a conversation. Organizations tend to persist beyond the conversations or communities they contain. But so do communities. The persistence of the two may be incommensurate.


HS: So, for example, if we look at the extended Silicon Valley community, it seems to be learning and — for better or worse — evolving rapidly in the last couple of decades.

JS: At that scale, it’s a persistent community that accommodates organizational birth and death. I forget who talks about how the effectiveness of that community is based on rapid organizational formation, learning — or not — and then thriving or bankruptcy. If it’s bankruptcy, those individuals and those relationships disperse and reform somewhere else. That enables other conversations in other companies to form. So it may be useful to think of organizations as platforms, just like we think of digital platforms. The problem is when we think of the organization and the community as coterminous.


HS: In Portland, as you know, there is a pretty passionate, extended community that’s focused on sustainability, and there are opportunities to look over each other’s shoulders at what others are working on.

JS: So I think questions about metrics come up. For whatever reasons, in Silicon Valley metrics emerged at the core of the ecosystem to say that what counts is innovation.

It’s much more difficult when it comes to sustainability, to agree on the metrics and to be able to say, “Look, I did it. I moved the needle.”


HS: And sustainability indicators are often organized around the three Es — ecology, economy, equity — and don’t always explicitly include learning itself as a measure of success.

JS: Well, learning is driven by some sense of life force, and if you leave that out, it’s as if you’re talking about a closed system or are ignoring how interactions can lead to inspiration or accident. You are ignoring the important ability to discern what to retain or remember versus what to abandon or forget. Without learning as a core point of awareness and self-reflection, there’s no space for, “Wow, we’re doing something really great! Or, this is terrible!”  There would be no pitched battles between different parts of the family.


HS: To wrap up this conversation, what are you looking to learn next?

JS: Well, on the community of practice side, I think that conversation has often gotten trapped at the skin or “self” boundary.  I’m thinking about questions like: How can we talk about “self” and “experience” and “learning” in more productive, integral ways? How do we create sustained, and collective, awareness about these things and about the environmental and social challenges that we think we face?

Howard Silverman teaches systems thinking in the Collaborative Design MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Formerly with Portland-based nonprofit Ecotrust, he has worked in numerous areas: food systems, fisheries and forestry, green building, climate and energy — and learned from the use of numerous approaches: scenario planning, spatial planning, market design, life cycle assessment, online-offline participatory processes, and communities of practice. He is cofounder of the scenarios, research, and design consultancy Pattern Labs and blogs at Solving for Pattern.