Target partners with MIT Media Lab, Ideo to study the future of food

The main shopping floor of CityTarget in Fenway, before its July opening.
The main shopping floor of CityTarget in Fenway, before its July opening.

Retail giant Target announced a multi-pronged partnership with blue-sky thinkers at the MIT Media Lab Monday with the goal of rebooting their grocery and wellness business for a new generation of customers. Their focus: The future of food.

The goal for these tandem research projects is broadly twofold, said Greg Shewmaker, Target’s entrepreneur-in-residence, who joined the company in June. “We want to improve people’s food options. We want to improve the transparency of the food we eat.”

About 20 percent of Target’s business comes from grocery sales, and it’s an area that the retailer hopes to expand. Target does not say how much it will invest, but intends the relationship to be a “multiyear” one that will change the way customers interact with the company in stores and online.

Step one for that endeavor is to track emerging conversations about food and eating preferences on social channels. Target’s partner in this effort is the Laboratory for Social Machines led by Media Lab professor and Twitter chief scientist Deb Roy. Though Target has used listened for feedback from customers on Twitter, this is the first time the company will conduct a focused investigation across online media.

The new Open Agriculture group is another partner at the Media Lab. Launched in the fall this year, OpenAg is led by Caleb Harper, a longtime academic who has been studying how agricultural practices can be adapted for urban environments. One early product of this group is the “Food Computer” a contraption with which an owner can precisely control a sapling’s various growing conditions: light, heat, water, available minerals, and the rest.

“Think about repurposed warehouses in an urban environment,” Shewmaker said. For Target, a company with lots of spaces in urban environments and a global supply chain, reasonable questions could include: “Can we grow some of this food closer to where it’s consumed?” and “Can we grow it in a more sustainable way.”

Design firm Ideo, which has a headquarters in Central Square, Cambridge, is a third partner. Together, they are creating a new lab space called the Future + Food coLAB.  Though the coLAB will draw on research conducted at the Media Lab, it will be located off-campus (Target doesn’t yet say where). The group is hiring student researchers.

This article was updated at 4:24 p.m. Eastern Time to correct the title of the Future + Food coLAB. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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