Persistent fools — Cunning intelligence and the politics of design

talk – 35 min | Feb 8 – 10:25

Using trickery to design for sustainability and resilience.

Design is politics in action. Current global political has been shaped by rationalist thinking, scientific instrumentalization, and global capitalism. It seems quite obvious that the same rationalist thinking that resulted to the current crisis will not be sufficient to counteract it. So what are the new skills designers need to navigate complexity toward more sustainable futures?

This talk will argue that metis, or the use of cunning intelligence to adapt to unforeseen variables, is one of the most important, albeit underdeveloped, skills for designers working on future scenarios. Metis is often associated with trickster archetypes from Greek mythology, such as Prometheus and Hermes, to modern fictional characters such as Pozzo from Waiting for Godot or Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to real individuals such as The Situationists and (arguably) 4chan trolls. All of these figures are characterized by their ability to act without planning, to adapt to a multitude of potential situations, comfort with not knowing the future, and the ability to provoke—often through the use of pranks, propaganda, and direct intervention—for the purpose of presenting alternate ways of thinking about the future.

As designers grapple with how to operate within the gap between past and future—learning from past mistakes to navigate unknown, future scenarios—the use of cunning intelligence to adapt to changing circumstances and cleverly outsmart power forces working against them becomes increasingly important. Logic, reason, and rationalism will simply not suffice to resist unsustainability.

The trouble with cunning intelligence, however, is that it is often positions itself as ethically neutral. The trickster lacks concern with the the future, and thus is not bothered with whether an action is right or wrong but only with whether it sustains existence or intervenes on an established belief that needs rethinking. So in addition to exploring the role of cunning intelligence for complex design challenges, I will also formulate a means for articulating the use of metis in sustainable, responsible ways. Examples of cunning in action will be pulled from both active design projects and theory.

Material for this presentation is based on research completed for my second book, Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design.

About the speaker

Thomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt


I’m an independent design strategist, author, facilitator, activist, educator, and speaker based in NYC.

My client work focuses on building sustainable human-centered design capabilities through workshops, training programs, and coaching, along with projects encompassing early stage design research, co-design, and service design. I have has worked with clients ranging from large companies to nonprofits and activist groups.

My independent research interests revolve around the relationship between design and philosophy, which have manifest in essays, presentations, and books, including: Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences and Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design.

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