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Target to partner with MIT on city farming, other food science projects

Food on display inside the first TargetExpress.
Food on display inside the first TargetExpress.
Food on display inside the first TargetExpress. Photograph by Ackerman + Gruber for Fortune

Target (TGT) is increasingly turning to geeks to improve its stores.

Last month, the retailer said it would team up with Techstars, a leading technology startup accelerator, for a program next year that will provide funding and mentoring to small up-and-coming companies focused on retail technology.

Now, Target is collaborating with technologists to help it improve its game in another high-stakes area: its multi-billion dollar food business.

Target this week announced a multi-year partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and global design firm IDEO that will focus on the future of food, looking at everything from urban farming to supply chain and food transparency. The three partners will, among other things, use data to monitor how the public discussion about food is evolving and get a leg up on how food will be grown, consumed, and sold in the next 15 years.

Early next year, Target and IDEO will launch the Food + Future coLAB in Cambridge, Mass., where MIT is based. The project will use research from MIT’s Media Lab. Target and MIT’s Open Agriculture initiative will also begin a multi-year collaboration to explore city farming.

Target CEO Brian Cornell has made vastly improving the retailer’s food assortment a top priority. While grocery accounts for about 20% of its sales, or some $15 billion last year, the company has admitted its offering is underwhelming at a time everyone from Kroger to Walmart (WMT) to Whole Foods Market (WFM) is bringing in more organic food and improving presentation.

And projects like the IDEO/MIT collaboration could help Target stand out from the crowd more.

Earlier this year, Target hired a former executive from Safeway to oversee the relaunch of its grocery business. The retailer says it will finalize its new food strategy sometime in 2016. In the meantime, Target has made moves like test placing healthier foods by the cash register and is offering more organic food in its baby category.

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