Musings on figure-ground reversal and the Three Horizons

By WiT, Jun 5 2014 10:57AM

Working with organisations on various projects around complex change, we have found the concept of Three Horizons, developed by the International Futures Forum, to be a really useful framework, and one that helps people make sense of the complexity of change, and how we can think about the future.


Put simply, the three horizons are:


Horizon 1 is business as usual, using the same thinking we have always used, thinking that is no longer adequate to help us adapt to the changing world around us.


Horizon 2 is a zone of experimentation, exploring new possibilities in response to the limits of the first horizon, and the potential of the third.


Horizon 3 is the future pattern. As Bill Sharpe writes in Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope - 'exploring the third horizon is a skill in working creatively with the unknown, the partially known and the uncertain'. We need to use systems thinking here, and part of this process is learning to see everything as patterns - exploring processes rather than structures:


'Three horizons thinking is based on consciously making this shift to bring processes into the foreground and explore how they are shaping the structures of life around us, making a sort of figure-ground reversal in our awareness. Instead of seeing a world of stability to which change and uncertainty 'happen', we instead become aware that everything that seems fixed and stable is just part of a slow process of change, embedded in other processes that extend out as far as we want to explore.'


This got me thinking about the idea of figure-ground reversal.



I first encountered figure-ground reversal as a child, in the well known black and white figure-ground patterns (two faces/ vase, old woman/ young woman etc). I was fascinated by these, and by how my perception of what I was seeing became 'locked in', and what it took to see the pattern differently.


Figure-ground emerged as a concept again for me when I was studying architecture in the 1970s. We were schooled at that time in a fairly uncritical modernism, dominated by the 'masters' - Corb, Mies van der Rohe etc. As a student activist I was highly critical of the politics of the architectural profession, and its exclusion of the people who actually lived, worked, learned or played in its buildings. Modernism tended to privilege the individual building as an isolated entity in its own right, and modernist planning was focussed on zoning and open space or parkland - all the better to appreciate the splendour of each individual building.

Figure-ground was used to critique this approach. Rather than seeing buildings in isolation, they need to be seen entirely in their context - and the reversal comes in seeing the spaces created between and around buildings as more important than the buildings themselves. Early advocates of this approach were Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter. These were often used to study and understand existing urban areas that 'worked' - such as Sienna (below). Frederick Gibberd developed the reverse figure-ground diagram, where the buildings are rendered white, and the spaces black to draw attention to the spaces between the buildings. These ideas became very important to me as an architect.



Having been reminded of the potency of figure-ground reversal in helping us to see different possibilities, it seems to be cropping up in all sorts of things that I'm reading at the moment around social change.


Positive Deviance is a really interesting concept and approach that we have written about in a previous post. It invites us to make a similar figure-ground reversal by 'upending the conventional wisdom by looking for exceptions to the rule'. These exceptions to the rule are people within communities who already have solutions to apparently intractable problems: rather than looking at what is not working, we shift our attention to the exceptions that are working.



Turbo Charging Volunteering: co-production and public service reform is a really useful publication about co-production written by David Boyle and published by the Centre Forum. It clearly defines co-production as a process '...to change power relationships, to give people an equal stake in their services...' and differentiates this from the widespread use of the term co-production in the health service and elsewhere where it is frequently used to simply mean consultation.

There are a number of areas here where we are invited to make a figure-ground reversal. Two that particularly stand out for me are:

Seeing service users not as a drain on an overstretched system, but as a positive, and mostly unused, asset.

Changing the mindset from one where family, social networks, mutual support and self help are used to plug the gaps that can't be filled by public services, to one where the first line of support is social networks - this is what a healthy, sustainable community looks like - and public services are used to plug the gaps and meet the needs that can't be met through these networks.


The ability to make this figure-ground reversal, to shift our perception to see things from a completely different perspective is clearly a really important part of enabling exploratory thinking around different possible futures, around the third horizon.


The challenge for us then is, individually and collectively, what are the ways of working, thinking, learning, feeling, doing and being that can support our ability to make this shift and see things differently?


1 comments
Jan 6 2015 06:34PM by Ashley Baxter

This is more interesting than it appears at first glance. I was initially put off by the long words and buzzwords, but I think I get it,

One danger is the misuse of the figure ground proposals for 'evil' purposes, e.g. the Big Society as exemplified by Lincolnshire County saying "You don't need these overpaid library staff, you bookworms should get together and run the library yourself. If you're reading novels you've clearly got too much time on your hands! Get to work..."

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