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ILP Institute Insider

July 9, 2019

iSoftStone partners with MIT ILP to solve urbanization and more in China

Tianwen Liu, founder, chairman, and CEO of iSoftStone, outlines the benefits of working with the Industrial Liaison Program to expand innovation in China.

Kayla Cash

Tianwen Liu is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of iSoftStone, a member of the MIT Industrial Liaison Program since 2011. Prior to founding iSoftStone, he co-founded AsiaEC.com and led efforts to build the company from inception to becoming China's largest online office supply and services provider (until it was acquired by Office Depot in 2006). Mr. Liu is a Sloan Fellow and holds an MBA from MIT Sloan, as well as a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Massachusetts.

Founded in 2001, iSoftStone serves a global market with outsourced technology services in enterprise digital transformation, IT, smart cities, and cloud and internet platforms. iSoftStone is headquartered in Beijing, China and employs over 40,000 people around the world with 140 offices in 61 cities and 33 global delivery centers.

We spoke with Mr. Liu about iSoftStone’s growth, the related overarching needs to modernize much of China as it has undergone rapid urbanization, and the role of MIT and the ILP in this transformation. He cited enthusiasm toward this growth, stating, “We are now in the digital economy. This is a new challenge for everyone. We saw company growth, and we recognized that we need more innovation, technologies, and good ideas to bring our company to the next level. And I think the best way to do this is to leverage the ILP and my connection to MIT.”

Fostering successful collaboration
In order to meet growing demands for innovation, iSoftStone has employed a successful collaboration model to best engage with MIT via the ILP. In Mr. Liu’s experience, effective partnerships between MIT researchers and corporate business units require several focused resources, including a dedicated engagement team, dedicated R&D teams, clear and practical expectations, and close collaboration with the ILP to navigate within MIT.

Mr. Liu emphasizes the importance of the ILP. “I knew MIT was the right place for us to go, but the Institute is large and tough to navigate, so we came to the ILP. The ILP was our window to access all kinds of resources and keep us engaged and informed with new events and technologies. They spend a lot of time with you to better understand your needs and connect you to those related resources.”

He also stresses the unique relationship of ILP Program Directors and their expertise in connecting MIT professors and research to their members. iSoftStone’s Program Director, Dr. Graham Rong, Director of Corporate Relations, has been fundamental to bridging these connections for the company to ensure a good match. Mr. Liu says, “We’ve been working with Dr. Rong for more than seven years now, and he is a very helpful, dedicated contact that helps us find exactly what we are looking for.”

Applying City Science to the real world
This matchmaking has often led to iSoftStone collaborating with MIT centers for the realization of multiple mutually-beneficial projects. One such large collaboration is with the MIT Media Lab’s City Science research group and their CityScope prototype – a 3D simulation tool dedicated to solving spatial design and urban planning challenges for shared, interactive computation.

In recent decades, China has seen exponential urban population growth; however, as Mr. Liu explains, the potential effects of this urbanization are often unknown. “Traditionally in China, when we develop a city, it starts with a concept, and then you draw the blueprints. But you don’t really know the impact that is going to have until you actually build it.”

Now local governments are seeking tools to best plan and support this ongoing urbanization. Insert CityScope. Mr. Liu describes the tool as “a 3D simulation platform to help a city planner consider all factors, like traffic, environmental impact, density of population, work, education, etc. It’s a very helpful and useful platform for Chinese cities to better plan their city and make it sustainable. With this tool, you can learn about impact in the design stage to make the entire city development more suited for people to work and live there.”

MIT City Science researchers visit iSoftStone in China twice a year to deploy the latest data models and conduct workshops with CityScope, while iSoftStone has added its own custom functions for China’s urban development demands, ultimately creating their own initiative, CityFusion, for simulating city planning. This platform has been successfully utilized for the modeling of more than ten cities now, and there is further interest to expand the CityScope model. For example, the city of Qingdao wants to sponsor the City Science Lab’s research to continue the development of their platform for use in planning Qingdao.

From beginning to end, this project has been very collaborative and flexible. Here Mr. Liu describes all the moving pieces: “The MIT Media Lab provides the algorithm and platform. iSoftStone works as a local partner to help integrate the data, which is provided by local government, to help simulate situations. This really benefits everyone. For MIT, they get real data and can continually upgrade and improve their algorithm. For iSoftStone, as a local sales company, we can help our government to improve their planning. And as a city, they now have the tools to make the right decisions.”

Further projects with MIT
iSoftStone has also worked with the MIT Mobile Experience Lab, which developed a visualization platform for tourism organizations in information search, reservation, ticket booking, and scenic area monitoring. Researchers from the Mobile Experience Lab met with iSoftStone and their clients to better understand tourism in China. From there, iSoftStone was able to integrate the platform with an existing application to empower both the platform functionality and visualization. They further built an interactive smart table for tourist use, which provided real-time scenic information to improve tourist experience on-site.

Another project, led by professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management, iSoftStone also collaborated with Zhejiang University and the China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives to analyze and identify risks in China’s food supply chain. This partnership allowed them to build a food supply chain visualization and analytics platform to show their research results while also working with MIT researchers to explore the impact of environment to food safety in China.

iSoftStone also collaborated with the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, which introduced the company to innovative rapid-detecting food and water contaminant sensors in the form of a carbon nanotube-based optical device. iSoftStone then provided information and environment monitor parameters, including water and air, to MIT researchers to learn about China environmental developments. Now iSoftStone is exploring the opportunity to incorporate the optical sensors into their environmental monitoring solutions.

Active membership leads to meaningful partnerships
All of these engagements came about from iSoftStone’s extremely active ILP membership. The company has even sponsored an MIT Conference in China and plans to sponsor more in the future. According to Mr. Liu, “MIT is an innovation icon for Chinese companies and government, and by doing this conference, it became a window between MIT and China to get to know and help each other. A recent MIT conference in China was especially successful, attracting more than 400 people from all over the country. It focused on innovation and a lot of new technologies, which is really going to create a long-term impact on China’s economy.”

As part of the conference’s program, Mr. Liu was invited to speak on the CEO panel, which discussed China’s economy, how MIT and Chinese companies can work together, and how to bring balance to both the local economy and also to MIT. Fostering the connection between innovation and industry is how the ILP can contribute to this balance. And as this relationship between the ILP, greater MIT, and iSoftStone deepens, it will create more engagements, more opportunities, and more solutions to real-world problems.