Methods Vignettes: Participatory Scenarios


By Stephen Whitfield


Participatory scenario workshops have been used and developed in research by Anthony Patt (Patt, Suarez et al. 2005) in Southern Africa, Kasper Kok and colleagues (Kok, Biggs et al. 2007), and the USAID funded Climate Change Collective Learning and Observatory Network in Ghana (Tschakert and Dietrich 2010), and they involve both a reflection on a history of challenges and opportunities and a discussion of preferences for different pathways of future change. In the methodological framework for anticipatory learning presented by Tschakert and Dietrich (2010) they explain the importance of incorporating ‘lessons learnt from the past’ with ‘monitoring and analysis of trends to anticipate future events’:

‘Memory, also referred to as ‘experiential grounding’, serves as the knowledge base underlying the capacity for anticipating and envisioning future uncertainty and surprise… identifying and monitoring slowly changing variables such as rainfall patterns and reflecting on and integrating new knowledge allows for a better understanding of processes that are already underway’ (Tschakert and Dietrich 2010: 12)

A participatory scenarios discussion and offers an opportunity for participant-led identification of structures and mechanisms of vulnerability and adaptation, whilst simultaneously offering a platform for information sharing, deliberation, and subsequently the building of adaptive capacity. Kok et al. (2007) describe scenarios as ‘an excellent vehicle for bridging knowledge systems, enhancing dialogue, and educating stakeholders’ (p.13). Participatory scenarios are usually developed through workshops in which a cross-section of a community participate in sharing and deliberating on visions for the future and can, for example, act as a methodology for risk assessment and management, which may or may not draw on information, such as climate model projections and science and technology developments, as contributors to the discussion (Huber‐Sannwald, Maestre et al. 2006, Voinov and Bousquet 2010, Whitfield and Reed 2011). Such an approach has the potential to provide an assessment of future scenarios that is based on the ways in which local stakeholders might utilise, experience and adapt, not just to the ecosystem but to the changing social, economic and political structures of which they are part. Patt et al. (2005) have demonstrated that, by combining climate forecasts with local experiences of historic and changing climates and using semi-quantitative description (such as the probabilities of ‘above-‘, ‘about-‘ and ‘below-‘ normal rainfall), within participatory workshops, it is possible to communicate detailed climate projections and their uncertainties to smallholder farmers (in their case subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe) and even engage in discussion about complex concepts, such as El Niño. A few examples (e.g. Robinson, Clouston et al. 2008) have shown that the environmental values of stakeholders can be changed as a result of learning through participatory workshops, however, there is much more to be learnt about the ways in which different knowledge systems are prioritised within these participatory forums.

What’s Involved?

Preparation on the part of facilitators is the key to generating discussion and this general framework needs to be adapted for the specific contexts, adaptation options and relevant social, economic, political, physical drivers of change. Prior analysis of survey or secondary data should be used to develop an understanding of local adaptations and drivers over a recent history. This will inform the initial stage of participatory scenarios development, which is a collective evaluation of the successes and failings of past adaptation strategies. Key prompt questions within this discussion include: ‘why was the change implemented’, ‘was it a permanent change or short term fix?’, ‘what are the main constraints on implementing this change?’, ‘was it successful?’, ‘why was it successful/unsuccessful?’

A second stage involves presenting information about relevant drivers of future change. Again the facilitator should have a detailed prior understanding of this information or partner with experts from related disciplines. This information might be a series of climate change projections, economic forecasts, information about pipeline technologies, models of ecological degradation/change, long term national or international political strategies. It is important that participants understand this information, how it was put together, and levels of uncertainty within it, and they should be encouraged to ask questions along those lines.

A third stage is to offer three or four non-specific pathways of change that relate to actions on the part of participants and correspond which changes made in the recent history of the community. The details of these activities (and the need to add or remove pathways) are determined through participant discussion. In an agricultural context, these pathways might include: changing land management, adopting alternative varieties, introducing cash crops, diversified off-farm income sources, etc. In each case participants are asked to explain what specific activities each pathway might involve (e.g. the introduction of cash crops might involving converting one third of maize acreage to growing orange trees).

The final stage is a set of specific questions in which participants are asked to think forward, in light of the information and projections presented earlier, and identify the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that might instigate the changes, identify the ‘actors’ (inclusive of individuals, officials, organisations, and non-human actors) responsible for these factors, and estimate the likelihood and timescales over which such factors might materialise.

Information can be recorded in a participatory and interactive manner, using large charts and post-it notes, and revisited (and triangulated) through a final open-ended comparative discussion of the relative merits of alternative pathways.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

The semi-structured and deliberative nature of the participatory scenarios workshop is designed to allow creative thinking about, and deliberation over, alternative pathways of future change, in each case considering the constraints and drivers of change and the structures and institutions through which these are shaped. Information exchange and social learning within such a forum has the potential to be transformative, the beginning of a process by which participants act to instigate changes to these structures and institutions, where possible such that they become enabling of preferred pathways.

If a workshop has carefully facilitated to encourage broad participation and the input of multiple voices, it can be a forum for otherwise marginalised viewpoints to be heard, and for the structures that result in marginalisation to be identified and discussed. It is not necessary that a single consensual view must be established amongst participants and the recording and presentation of discussions should be done so as to reflect diversity and contestation, where it emerges from discussion.

Possible Limits?

This method has been used in a PhD project exploring alternative narratives of climate change adaptation in Kenyan maize farming and is particularly well suited to considering adaptations in response to climate change in a variety of sectors and contexts. It c also be used as a tool for comparative analysis of preferred pathways between different knowledge communities (e.g. farmers, crop breeders, policy makers) or even a forum for deliberation between representatives of these varied knowledge communities.

The logistics and time commitment involved in preparing for and hosting such workshops will likely limit its application, but it has potentially provide a rich data output (and one that requires careful and flexible analysis).


Huber‐Sannwald, E., F. T. Maestre, J. E. Herrick and J. F. Reynolds (2006). “Ecohydrological feedbacks and linkages associated with land degradation: a case study from Mexico.” Hydrological Processes 20(15): 3395-3411.

Kok, K., R. Biggs and M. Zurek (2007). “Methods for developing multiscale participatory scenarios: insights from southern Africa and Europe.” Ecology and Society 12(1): 8.

Patt, A., P. Suarez and C. Gwata (2005). “Effects of seasonal climate forecasts and participatory workshops among subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102(35): 12623-12628.

Robinson, J., B. Clouston, J. Suh and M. Chaloupka (2008). “Are citizens’ juries a useful tool for assessing environmental value?” Environmental Conservation 35(04): 351-360.

Tschakert, P. and K. A. Dietrich (2010). “Anticipatory learning for climate change adaptation and resilience.” Ecology and Society 15(2): 11.

Voinov, A. and F. Bousquet (2010). “Modelling with stakeholders.” Environmental Modelling & Software 25(11): 1268-1281.

Whitfield, S. and M. Reed (2011). “Participatory environmental assessment in drylands: Introducing a new approach.” Journal of Arid Environments 77: 1-10.