This article is a combination of a methodological paper and a treatise looking at some of the theory underpinning participatory methods in stakeholder engagement in science. One focus is on methods that involve the co-design of structured outputs (maps, models, games, stories, etc.) that can be interpreted by both scientist and non-scientist alike – thereby creating “sideways” rather than top-down or bottom-up perspectives.

The authors describe how some established and novel methods (participatory agent-based modelling, co-constructing of computer games, and participatory social-network mapping) can be used to engage stakeholders in iterative, constructivist communication, allowing researchers and stakeholders to co-create a structured “reality”. The authors discuss how such approaches support and contribute to scientific outputs that better represent participants’ reality.

The authors examine the impacts of such approaches used in ecosystem services, agricultural adaptation, and disaster-risk management. They find that such representations provide communication opportunities and spaces for reflection and constructivist learning. They conclude that the structured outputs allow stakeholders (both participants and researchers) to mirror their human-environmental system to collaboratively think about gaps and problems in understanding.