Evaluating disruptive innovation in the age of transition

For an introduction to the 3 Horizon framework start here

Daniel Christian Wahl
5 min readMay 14, 2021

It is useful to classify H2 innovations into two categories. The first category is called H2 minus. H2- innovations change the technology employed and therefore disrupt ‘business as usual’ temporarily but without leading to a profound systemic transformation. The second category is H2 plus. H2+ innovations offer a bridge to H3, leading to a structural change and transformation of the system in question.

For example, providing power to the national grid via large-scale wind-farms is on the one hand part of the H2+ strategy of moving towards a 100% renewable energy based system, and on the other hand an H2- innovation locked into an H1 mindset as it is still structurally supporting a centralized energy system. An example of a genuine H2+ innovation in this area would be a blend of diverse and decentralized renewable energy technologies that combine stand-alone and grid-connected options in order to increase the flexibility, efficiency and resilience of our energy system overall. Figure 3 shows how we can evaluate potentially disruptive innovation within the context of the longer-term transition towards regenerative cultures, applying the Three Horizons’ framework.

For practitioners aiming to facilitate the transition towards regenerative cultures, the art of evolutionary rather than revolutionary cultural transformation is to avoid systems collapse and subsequent rebuilding and to avoid dismissing the ‘old story’ categorically (throwing out the baby with the bathwater) but to build the ‘new story’ by transcending and including the ‘old story’. To do so effectively we need to be able to distinguish between H2- and H2+ innovations, and support the latter as a way to drive the deeper transformation towards a regenerative H3 culture.

Figure 3: Adapted from Bill Sharpe (2013) and expanded, with permission from the author

H2+ type disruptive innovation tends to disrupt H1 (‘business as usual’) by offering improved solutions that buy us time to evolve the deeper H3 type transformative innovation. Widespread, culturally creative behavioural changes and worldview shifts only come about if we involve everybody — those who are invested in maintaining the status quo, those who see the entrepreneurial potential of doing things in a different way, and those who can envision fundamental worldview and value changes that would create a more regenerative culture. All three perspectives need to inform an ongoing conversation about our collective future.

Three Horizons thinking and practice is an invitation to move from rigidly held and defended ‘mindsets’ to being able to develop future consciousness by valuing the perspectives of all three horizons. As a sustainability educator and consultant with a particular interest in bridging between organizations in order to find common ground for co-creating a regenerative economy and culture, I have witnessed many entrenched arguments in rooms full of people who all wanted to do the right thing. Three Horizons thinking is a way to discover common ground and move forward together.

Paying attention to, and trying to support, both H2+ and H3 types of innovation is very important during the turbulent transition period we are in, but we also need to value the perspectives of H1 and H2- innovators trying to meet basic operational needs during the transition. If the lights go out, we risk taking a revolutionary — not an evolutionary — path, which could set us back into anachronistic, them-against-us thinking.

In a rigid mindset even H2+ innovators and H3 visionaries will tend to argue with each other rather than seeing that they are powerful allies. Far too often I have witnessed well-meaning visionary people wasting time over arguments that were trying to critique H2+ innovations as insufficiently transformative. Arguments between rigid mindsets tend to compare and contrast the slower, more complex transformative innovation (which often includes social innovation, value and behaviour change, and the redesign of economy, society and governance) with the more rapidly deployable technological changes in our energy, transport or production systems. In my opinion, we need technological innovators who are developing, say, new kite-based wind energy technologies that use less energy and materials than large turbine-towers, just as much as we need innovators who are designing complementary exchange and currency systems to enable a cooperative economy.

It is important to be aware that all three horizons are present at any point on the time axis. They do not fully replace one another, but simply change in their relative ‘prevalence’ (as scored on the y axis). This is a reminder to carefully assess what aspects of the ‘old system’ are worth saving. Humanity too often disregards the wisdom of the past in the name of ‘progress’. In response to the dysfunctional aspects of ‘business as usual’ we often over-swing the pendulum and change from one extreme to another, rather than maintain what is good and useful of the old and blend it in a creative way with the new. The red line at the right end of the diagram represents just these useful aspects and structures of Horizon 1 that are worth maintaining and transforming.

Similarly, the green line of Horizon 3 on the left side of the diagram reminds us that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” as the science fiction writer William Gibson has put it. One way to accelerate the transition towards a regenerative culture is to identify these pockets of the future in the present and work to amplify and spread the transformative innovations generated by such visionary experiments.

Examples of experiments in transformative innovation are all around. Here are just a few areas where it is useful to evaluate disruptive innovations (H2-/+) for their role in the transition towards regenerative cultures: the fields of ‘collaborative consumption’, ‘distributed manufacturing’, bio-inspired innovation in industrial product and process design, ‘open P2P innovation’; ‘socio-cratic systems of governance’ and ‘restorative justice’; ‘complementary exchange media’ at the local, regional and global scale; work on ‘the circular economy’ and ‘regenerative economics’; transition (town) initiatives and ecovillages, as well as work on eco-cities and bioregional development plans. The path of cultural transformation is made by walking it with an open mind and a willingness to learn from each other, from our mistakes, and from the community of life. …

[This sub-chapter is an excerpt from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in 2016 — see reviews here]

More on the 3 Horizon Framework:

Kate Raworth introducing the Three Horizon Framework

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

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Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures