Doug Engelbart’s Paradigm for Bootstrapping

Guest contributor Karen Risa Robbins with Christina Engelbart

2000-nmt-engelbart-portraitDr. Douglas Engelbart conceived and demonstrated a constellation of technological breakthroughs in the 1960’s that ushered in personal and networked computing, earning him the 2000 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the 1997 MIT-Lemelson prize, an honorary doctorate degree from Yale University, and other top honors. It has been written about Doug, “In a single stroke he had what might be safely called a complete vision of the information age.” [1]

Doug gave us many of the key technological elements that shaped modern computing: the mouse, hyperlinks, word processing, dynamic file linking, windows, graphical user interfaces, collaborative real-time editors and video teleconferencing.  In addition, he introduced us to the concept of networks, thinking at scale, and a philosophy of collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Doug’s inventions impacted the course of human history. But few people know that the driving force behind his revolutionary technological work was a strategy for rapid prototyping the organization and tools of the future. Further, he had tested the strategy rapid prototyping his own research team, whose work product was increasingly transformative (as their unprecedented breakthrough achievements attest).

Doug devoted the latter portion of his career not to technology development but to promoting those organizational constructs that he believed would be essential and transformational for business and society. He called it Bootstrapping Collective IQ. Though his approach received only modest attention during his lifetime – having been overshadowed by his technological triumphs – Doug considered it to be his most important work.

“I’m so convinced that the world needs it immensely that I absolutely cannot rest until this kind of Bootstrapping gets a start.”

How and why did the father of information technology become engrossed in organizational transformation?

At a time in the 1950s when computers were still very rare, people considered them to be numerical calculating machines. Doug was a young electrical engineer who had served in the U.S Navy in WWII. He had not yet seen a computer but he was generally familiar with their functions.

Doug aspired to do something meaningful for mankind.   He searched purposefully for a calling and received an epiphany. Doug conceived the unprecedented notion that computers could augment human intelligence. [2] He saw the computer’s ability to store and share information as the foundation for tools that could improve the way humans advance and share knowledge.  Doug had wanted to work on solving critical human problems. He realized that if he could dramatically improve the way humans worked together to solve important problems, he would affect every problem because humans would be significantly more effective across the board.

It became a hallmark of Doug’s thinking to look at what makes humans more effective across the board. Further, he became deeply interested in what makes organizations more effective because he viewed our most pressing human problems to be of a shared nature and requiring a collective response.

“I just couldn’t picture that our society could continue coping well in a world that is getting more complex and moving faster while our ability to cope with problems and issues … collectively … and rapidly … is just not keeping up with these great challenges.” [3]

What made this engineer so concerned about society’s ability to cope? The answer is both fascinating and counter-intuitive. It is not well known that in 1959 Doug performed the preliminary calculations that led to the now famous Moore’s law,[4]   as part of a study on the scaling of electronic components, and he emerged convinced that digital technology would rapidly become ubiquitous, with potentially dire consequences for society:

“…And then I looked at it and said, the computer technology … that’s affecting communications, displays, storage, computer processing, constructing the way you can interface to things a lot more flexibly… that’s going to be so pervasively high-impact in our society and on our organizations that it’s more than anything else we’ve ever had to cope with evolutionary-wise. So the old ways of co-evolving are going to be overstressed. We need a way for society to learn how to cope.” [5]

Doug coined the term “Collective IQ” as a measure of our collective intelligence, to suggest that we need to think about the aptitude of a collective entity. [6]

Doug viewed our predicament this way:

”It’s like being in a vehicle going faster and faster through terrain that is rougher and rougher…and the vehicle has a very sluggish way of controlling where it is going. It is both sluggish and dumb, and the headlights don’t shine very far in the future so they don’t show very much about what’s coming. And it can’t steer very well and there are barely brakes, and there is no reverse.” [7]

The founding father of information technology, whose inventions helped spread digital technology worldwide, spent two-thirds of his career warning about the existential dangers of digital technology to society and passionately urging us to adopt a plan to protect mankind:

“It will be a survival issue for some countries and some companies, etc. But I’m also thinking of humanity. We just have to get smarter about the way we deal collectively with the collective problems. So if there’s any chance, we should get going.” [8]

Doug proposed a strategy for making the collective smarter. He initially called it “augmenting human intellect,” and later “boosting collective IQ”. To understand his framework, one must first appreciate that he perceived the aptitude of a collective unit to rest upon an underlying infrastructure of capabilities (i.e., the “Capability Infrastructure”).

He described the Capability Infrastructure as an interlocking set of human systems and tool systems that had grown up together, the result of changes and adaptations, one to the other, throughout the centuries. Human systems encompass our paradigms, customs, procedures, methods, language, skills, training, knowledge, etc. Tool systems encompass technology, machinery, tools, vehicles, media, etc. Taken together, these represent mankind’s evolutionary inheritance. According to Doug, “this system augments humans and it’s all we have.” [9]

Doug taught that historically these two systems co-evolved in a way that allowed humans to slowly adapt. But he was certain that the “catapulting set of changes” coming from a fast-paced digital revolution would overwhelm relatively slow-moving human systems. He was chagrined that so few people were cognizant of the rate and scale of accelerating change and the implications for society. He was not well heard when he called for “a pragmatic way to shepherd the co-evolution” of these two systems.

We better start learning and being explicit about this change in the human system rather than just letting the product people throw new stuff at us and then we gradually and almost retroactively are starting to adapt to it. We better become proactive in planning concurrently the way these future things are changing together. [10]

Further, Doug wanted people to understand that the human side is prone to retard progress because the existing paradigm rejects the unfamiliar. Doug explained, “our organizations are sort of captive in one dimension.” Doug knew this from personal experience. His information technologies and concepts for how they could transform our lives were considered too far out for many years and he lost funding, his lab, and his team.[11] Some of his most worthwhile inventions still have yet to be implemented. He never got over the insight that existing paradigms hold back evolution.

As a technology guy you think, oh boy, we’re going to do all these things! And slowly I began to be aware of things over on the human side, so finally I started listing them. And that just sobered me up so much that if anything I’ve been more leaning on that side, even though I get applauded for the things on the tool side. I keep saying, look, the only way the tool system changes are going to get harnessed is by changes in the human systems! So really really I can’t emphasize that enough. [12]

Doug asked the question, why can’t we think of candidates for change on the human side the same way we pursue advances in tools? Why can’t we ask how we are going to evolve and what will we need in the future?   According to Doug,

“There isn’t an infrastructure for changing organizations that’s up to the problem.”[13]

From these ruminations two critically important queries arose that would form the central theme of Doug’s call to action: (1) what if we could find an investment strategy for guiding co-evolution of human and tool systems in the face of accelerating change and complexity; and (2) whose responsibility is it to chart that future course so we are ready to respond smartly to fast-paced, unprecedented challenges and opportunities? It might be surprising to learn that these were the problems that kept Doug up at night for the majority of his career:

“Determining what strategy would yield the best return on investment has been the underlying driving thing for me for all these years.” [14]

The more Doug considered the matter of where to invest for the most improvement, he reflected on how today’s organization’s handle improvement. He noted that organizations focus almost all of their energy and resources on day-to-day functions. A small portion of their attention may be focused on improving how they carry out those functions. Doug described the day-to-day work as A, and today’s improvement efforts as B. To Doug’s thinking, neither A nor B is adequate to address the transformational requirements of our times. He posited the notion that there needs to be C, which consists of efforts to improve the improvement process.

“Things are changing very rapidly. The way we improve, which direction, changing what…it’s a different set of questions from B. I started talking about a frontier out there.” [15]

C is about accelerating the ability to innovate and transform at scale. Doug said he couldn’t find a company engaged in serious, sustained C work. In essence, he saw that we are simply not recognizing the gravity of our situation and getting ready fast enough for the coming storm. To answer the need, Doug postulated the Bootstrapping strategy.

The Bootstrapping name sprang from two sources. One was a folktale about a guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps in order to see farther. The second was by analogy to computer operations, because Doug’s strategy, as we will see, mirrored the computer’s approach of recursively improving. Doug explained it this way:

“Your computer boots up and it says Oh, start up from scratch. The computer has a little bit of memory inside that doesn’t go away when the power turns off. But that’s expensive and it is only smart enough to fire up and get going. It reaches into the hard disk and brings a little bit more and loads it in, and that’s enough to reach in and get some more, and then that’s enough to reach and get some more. And pretty soon it’s bootstrapped itself up for doing what you want.” [16]

Jeff Rulifson, Doug’s chief software architect at the SRI Augmentation Research Center, explains “Doug’s vision of the future is not a vision of specifically where you’re going to be or which devices you’re going to use…it’s a vision of getting a process going that puts discipline into this evolutionary idea.” [17]

In thinking through how to achieve faster, smarter, improvement cycles, Doug introduced the concept of an improvement infrastructure. He saw that improvement itself is a critical system in these disruptive times, and how we organize that system and what we ask of it would determine our results.

“If we were to select the right kind of improvement infrastructure then some of the first things you go after could help you not only to improve on your collective work, but also on that very improvement process. It would improve your improvement. That’s what I call Bootstrapping.” [18]

Doug said that Bootstrapping could achieve a compound return on investment because the very things you are trying to boost and augment could be used to improve your improvement infrastructure.

Doug told us how to begin:

“Why don’t we specialize first at reaching out and bringing things into the Now that help us be more effective at sizing up the future…” [19]

And he told us where to look next:

“Then you ask, what capabilities would probably help best in the kind of (capability) infrastructure that we could conceive of?” [20]

He instructed us how to start boosting Collective IQ:

“So what do you have to do if you’re going to build a system and its going to work collectively? For me in the late 60s and the 70s, and ever since, trying to do collaborative support on distributed groups has been…the driving thing for right now. If collectiveness means it works over distributed networks so people can share and collaborate at a distance and work together effectively, it means what I call CoDIAK: Concurrently we can Develop, Integrate and Apply Knowledge throughout our organizations and with individuals…. That system has to be interoperable. The ways in which we work online have to be scalable to the point where, for example, you could talk about the nation’s collective IQ, or you could talk about the United Nations collective IQ, etc.”  [21]

He imparted the importance of key attributes of an improvement infrastructure, including the Dynamic Knowledge Repository (DKR) and the Open Hyperdocument System (OHS). While the scope of this article does not permit a review of all his concepts, it is important to note that he provided guidance on the best practices and conventions for working collectively, and on advisable features for tools that could optimize the capture, organization, navigation, search and enhanced utility of shared knowledge.

Ever the engineer, Doug concerned himself with the deployment approach for Bootstrapping. He insisted that C work could not be done in the same manner that B work is conducted because you cannot transform from within the current paradigm. Instead, he advocated for the formation of special teams that would have the zest and foundational knowledge to develop a “frontier map” identifying the leading edge of capabilities. From there, an expeditionary team would conduct immersive pilot projects aimed at augmenting core aspects of the capability infrastructure. He called this “setting up outposts on the frontier.”

Doug’s approach to exploration was based around rapid prototyping, learning by doing, evidence-based conclusions, and scaling up by using what was learned.

“For Doug, the purpose of the tools was to get them just good enough to use. Then he and his team of knowledge workers (programmers, hardware designers, documenters, and co-visionaries) would both use the tools and observe and improve their use of the tools. The people developing the tools were using the tools next to the people who just used the tools.

Doug believed fiercely in humans’ ability to learn by doing, to do, to observe while doing, to discuss and recommend improvements, and to implement those improvements all in an iterative fashion. This is how true breakthroughs occur. Doug’s team members talked about all the times that they had to shift their work to a new computing platform and redesign everything because one of them had envisioned something new, or something new was now possible.” [22]

Doug instructed that the teams must be interdisciplinary, composed of stakeholders from various domains who bring diverse skills and backgrounds. He envisioned something like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, boldly exploring the far edges of our imagination and know-how, based on anticipated needs, and returning with viable prototypes that had been well exercised.

A core tenant of Bootstrapping involves the formation of networks of organizations jointly pursuing improvement vectors. Doug believed that organizations whose A work was entirely dissimilar could nevertheless share deep interest in C activities because the focus of C activities is shared core competencies. He called these collective improvement efforts a networked improvement community (NIC).

In a thought piece he called the Bootstrap Paradigm Map, Doug wrapped all of the above observations and prescriptions into a unified template for how to respond to and create the future, and the paradigm shifts that will be needed to do so. [23]

Here is a highly condensed version of Doug’s methodology for a disciplined approach to evolving collective aptitude in this time of accelerating change:

  1. Recognize that everything is built on a set of collective capabilities.       Though not acknowledged as such, there is a capability infrastructure that girds organizations and society.
  2. The way to unleash evolutionary-level transformation is to augment the capability infrastructure.
  3. To augment the capability infrastructure, we must intentionally co-evolve tool systems and human systems. The human side lags and ultimately paces how fast we can raise the Collective IQ.
  4. Organizations need to invest in sustained C work, which means focusing attention on cultivating an improvement infrastructure appropriate to our challenges and then recursively improving on the improvement infrastructure. We need to acknowledge C work as critical to the well-being of organizations and the larger society and invest accordingly.
  5. In conducting C work, our objective must be to seek out and invest in things that meet the criteria of raising the Collective IQ.
  6. This requires global interoperability for our tools. And it similarly requires a dynamic, open and interoperable system for handling our emergent knowledge. We must be able to concurrently develop, integrate, and apply our knowledge at any scale.
  7. To amplify learning and reduce risk, organizations must form or join a Networked Improvement Community (NIC). NICs are special exploration groups constituted by networks of organizations jointly pursuing C work – concurrently and collaboratively exploring, testing, and sharing major advances. They must have the freedom to conduct pilot projects and learn by doing.
  8. We must accept that in today’s environment of growing complexity and accelerating change, Bootstrapping is a constant. Improving the improvement infrastructure is essential, and C work is a survival skill. We must embark now on networked exploring, learning and adapting.

Christina Engelbart, Executive Director of the Doug Engelbart Institute, suggests the motivation for the Bootstrap Paradigm Map can be understood simply as “Engelbart’s Law”:

“Digital technology will become increasingly miniaturized and affordable, and its injection into all levels of business and society will become increasingly widespread and rapid. This will cause a disruptive ripple effect in society like never before seen, shifting us onto an unsustainable trajectory where important challenges become increasingly complex and urgent with potentially disastrous consequences to humanity if this phenomenon is not well understood and adequately addressed. The vast majority of our organizations and institutions, which steer the boat we are all on, are severely underestimating the magnitude and speed of the curve, and thus are aiming too low and operating too slow. It is no longer an option to get incrementally smarter and faster. Organizations must become exponentially more intelligent and agile, using successive gains in Collective IQ to accelerate progress toward that goal. Those who lag will be rendered increasingly ineffective. ” [24]

It must be underscored that Doug was far from a prophet of doom. Rather, he had an uncanny ability to perceive trends and to extrapolate their trajectory. As an engineer and keen observer of humankind, he had deep faith in the ability of humans to join together, pool their shared intelligence, and explore and invent solutions. Doug offered a new template for society, calling on organizations to step into the improvement void and become proactive in charting the future. He called for collective effort, and ever more effective tools for collaborating over knowledge and actions.

Doug’s vision is that we will accept the challenge of transforming our capabilities intentionally, thoughtfully, proactively, collaboratively, and rapidly. We will ride out the rough terrain by improving our collective vehicle, even as it is careening along at high speed. By Bootstrapping, we will enjoy exponential increases in improvement, landing ourselves…well, who knows where.

“The key is to accelerate the natural co-evolution of our
Tool and Human Systems toward ever-more powerful Augmentation Systems, enabling increasingly effective Collective IQ. I call this strategic approach a 
Bootstrapping Strategy, an important aspect of which is that the teams that are accelerating the co-evolution use what they are developing in support of their own collective work.” 
— Douglas Engelbart


[1] Markoff, John. “Computer Visionary Who Invented The Mouse.” New York Times. July 3, 2013.

[2] The year was 1951

[3] 1995 Lecture at UC Santa Barbara, Glen Culler Honorary Event

[4] Moore’s law says that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years.

[5] 1997 Lemelson-MIT Awards Ceremony

[6] First use of the term by Doug was in 1994.

[7] 1995 Lecture at UC Santa Barbara, Glen Culler Honorary Event

[8] Ibid.

[9] 1995 Vaneevar Bush Symposium

[10] 1995 Visionary Leaders of the Information Age

[11] Doug’s Augmentation Research Lab at SRI Int’l was funded for 10 years.

[12] 1998 Management Innovation Seminar, Proctor & Gamble

[13] 1995 IBM New Paradigms for Using Computers Symposium

[14] 1995 Lecture at UC Santa Barbara, Glen Culler Honorary Event

[15] 2002 Interview with Doug Engelbart, in 2009 New Media Consortia Fellow Award Tribute Video

[16] 1995 Lecture at UC Santa Barbara, Glen Culler Honorary Event

[17] Jeff Rulifson in conversation with Doug Engelbart. 30th Anniversary of the Mother of All Demos, 1998, Stanford University

[18] 1995 Lecture at UC Santa Barbara, Glen Culler Honorary Event

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid

[22] Seybold, Patty. “A Commitment to Complete the Work of Augmenting Human Intelligence,” Outside Innovation, December 11, 2008. Weblog.

[23] Doug’s lectures and seminars on the topic are all watchable at the virtual Engelbart

Academy at


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