Dr. Joseph F. Pekny:
Knowledge Acquisition Frameworks and Deliberate Innovation - Perspectives from and Next Steps for a Journey in Engineering Complexity

Event Date: March 29, 2013
Dr. Joseph F. Pekny


We live at a time of marvelous advances and great promise. For example, many of us wear and make phone calls with handheld “computers” that dwarf the capability of supercomputers of just a few years ago. The fundamental advances responsible for such a Moore’s law phenomena will drive profound and unpredictable economic improvementsfor many years.

Yet, people are aware that our society is up against what might perhaps be existential challenges. Climate change, economic bubbles, terrorism, affordability of healthcare, cancer, national debt, providing sufficient energy for everyone, etc. are challenges of incredible complexity. How can we reconcile scientifically these observations of great promise and foreboding challenge?

At least partially, our society has reached the limits of understanding that are possible through scientific reductionism. Observations of complexity over the last few decades show that new principles are required for useful understanding. I will use the experiencesfrom my career at Purdue to provide a practical definition of complexity and introduce the developing ideas of knowledge acquisition frameworks and deliberate innovation as tools which can mitigate complexity. These tools may prove useful to understanding and engineering the “holistic” nature of complexity.


Dr.  Pekny is a Professor of Chemical Engineering with research interests in supply chain management, planning and scheduling systems, process design and analysis, model-based process improvement, agent-based modeling, and real-time decision systems.  Over the last twenty years his group has developed a new type of applied mathematics and problem solving approach to address complexity involving the time line.  These models are particularly useful in serving as a knowledge acquisition framework to understand large amounts of process data, identify data needing to be collected, and to achieve strategic goals.  Professor Pekny believes in utilizing the academic culture to accomplish objectives which are impossible without a long term, fundamental focus, and close collaboration with practitioners.

From September 2001 to August 2009, Dr. Pekny served as the Founding Director of the e-Enterprise Center at Purdue University’s Discovery Park.  The e-Enterprise Center led development of Discovery Park processes and interdisciplinary research in the use of computers in the design, management, interaction, and operation of organizations; the goal oriented use of computational science and engineering; and research promoting rapid concept convergence and implementation. The capabilities of the e-Enterprise Center were absorbed by the Vice President of Research Office to become a campus wide resource.  Dr. Pekny led the creation and growth of the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering and served as the Founding Director from its inception in 2004 through 2005.  He led the hiring of a permanent Director and a number of faculty members in the healthcare engineering area.

From July 2008 to December 2010, Dr. Pekny served as the Interim Head of the School of Industrial Engineering at Purdue, which ended with the hiring of a permanent Head for which Dr. Pekny was a leader of the search process.  In collaboration with the Dean of Engineering, the Interim Headship was executed to be a period of growth and investment in the Purdue School of Industrial Engineering. Dr. Pekny hired four Assistant Professors of Industrial Engineering and formed the College of Engineering System Task Force to be led by Industrial Engineering and the University Wide Entrepreneurship Task Force which is advised by serial entrepreneur alumni of the Purdue School of Industrial Engineering.

Dr. Pekny received the Engagement/Service Award from the Purdue University College of Engineering in February 2012.  He received the One Brick Higher Award from Purdue President Martin Jischke in 2007.  Dr. Pekny was chosen to serve as Chairman of Purdue President France Cordova’s Strategic Plan Economic Development Team in 2008, co-Chairperson of the team that formed her Global Policy Research Institute (GPRI) in 2009, and co-Chairman of the Entrepreneurship Launch Team in 2011. Dr. Pekny currently serves as the faculty liaison with the Purdue West Coast Partnership Center in Silicon Valley and faculty Director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship program.  He has received the Purdue University Shreve Teaching Award and Kimberly Clark Student Mentoring Award. In 1999 he was appointed a Purdue University Faculty Scholar. 

Dr. Pekny is a co-founder of Advanced Process Combinatorics, Inc. (APC), a company that was spun-off from research at Purdue University in 1993.  APC is a research and development based company that has developed the unique & powerful VirtECS mathematical programming technology for planning, scheduling, and process analysis.  VirtECS routinely solves the largest mathematical programming problems in practice in the daily service of the some of the most complex and value dense processes.