DORV centers reinvigorate local communities left behind by centralization and depopulation without essential services. Initiated, financed, and managed by citizens through a simple model, DORV centers become a one-stop-shop for citizens, combining a local convenience store with postal, social, and medical services to inspire local communities to stay in these areas and grow them rather than desert them.
The New Idea
DORV (Service and Local Provisioning) was launched in 2001 in a village of 1,400 when due to commercial concentration and rural depopulation the last bank closed and the village faced an irreversible decline. Heinz Frey realized that the reinvigoration of small villages would only work if community members worked together, took ownership, and found an innovative way to create a holistic local supply situation that meets their needs and allows them to stay in their environments.
Within three years, Heinz has brought together the financial and engagement resources as well as the best practices from many other places to create the first DORV center. It is the first applied concept that combines what has so far not interacted: essential food and fresh produce (sourced from the closest existing independent baker, butcher, and local farmer) with services such as communication, postal, and car registration services as well as medical and social services through scheduled consultation hours. This way, a DORV center becomes a community owned and organized hub for village life and supply, also serving as meeting point and facility for cultural events.
Commercial concentration and rural depopulation are among the most corrosive change patterns in Germany, slowly causing tens of thousands of local communities to be deserted by cultural institutions, financial, medical and social services, food and other stores, with “the bakery leaving last,” as Heinz has observed in his own village.
The distribution of food stores illustrates commercial concentration very clearly: while in 2000 there still were about 45,000 stores sized 400 square meters or less, in 2008 this number was nearly cut by half because for large retailers, small-sized stores are not economically productive. With this development not only do the distances to the next store grow, but also many small stores in villages are left empty, changing the character of many communities. Small stores and corner shops today have a market share of less than 10 percent. With the rising necessity of mobility in order to access products and services, especially elderly become highly dependent on support. If they do not have it, they are forced to move to where the supply is located. Additionally, communities hit by this development become much less attractive to younger groups and families who then tend to move away as well—leaving what is called “sleeping villages.”
Commercial concentration and rural depopulation interact closely. Statistics show that rural areas are hit by both phenomena far above average. This is because on the one hand, population in general is on the decline, leaving mostly elderly people in rural areas, and on the other hand young people and families strive to live in the cities or metropolitan areas due to job opportunities and the outlook of modern urban life. Rural communities in Germany shrunk by 2 percent in West Germany and 7 percent in East Germany between 2003 and 2008. Depopulation rates are higher when there are fewer local supply structures intact. Some areas in Germany even observe declines of up to one-third of the population.
This interaction is a vicious cycle of a reduction in people, local economies, and attractive job opportunities—leading to negative effects for the local populations and rural sustainability as a whole. These negative effects include a rise in negative outlooks on the future, loneliness, and as a consequence, rising political protectionism in some cases. Statistics vary widely depending on which definitions are used. According to the OECD, 12 percent of Germany’s population lives in rural areas, while Germany itself uses a smaller unit of definition leading to a total of 27 percent of Germany’s population living in rural areas. On average, 25 percent of this population lacks a comprehensive supply structure within less than a 30-minute drive from their homes. At least 31 percent of villages in rural areas struggle with being able to provide supply and services to their communities—or will be in this situation in the near future.
Studies indicate that in communities with up to 5,000 citizens, more than 60 percent seek a better supply through small retailers. The timing is most opportune for rural areas and villages to innovate and create a new kind of social growth; before the situation deteriorates further for rural populations.
Heinz empowers rural citizens to take the future of their villages into their own hands and work together to create a village worth living in for all community members. Through the DORV-concept he allows community members to (i) keep living in their accustomed surrounding and lower the cost of mobility (ii) improve quality of life in villages through a better and holistic supply of foods, services, and supplies and (iii) foster new ways of community engagement, communication and dialogue among the generations living together.
Heinz realized that for real and sustainable change on a local level a majority of citizens in a village must be actively involved and must take honest ownership. This is why he bases the whole DORV model on a simple but important principle: at all times of development and implementation a local DORV initiative is owned, designed, and implemented by the local community members—leading to high involvement and sustainability.
After implementing the DORV-concept in a 1,400 person village, Jülich-Barmen, in West Germany in 2004, the model has spread to many villages and municipalities in all parts of the country. In order to ensure systematic scaling, Frey created a standardized process. Within a first feasibility study, the current situation of local supply is observed in order to have a first estimate whether or not there would be a chance for the model to become financially sustainable. Then, a local population decides upon conducting a local survey, led by community members themselves, which serves to target the needs of the community. Usually, the rate of return lies between 40 and 85 percent—giving the DORV initiative a great basis to work on. Heinz and his team, with local partners, develop a concept for the local DORV center, which is then presented to the people again. At each step, community members have to decide whether or not to move on, strengthening the commitment.
Key to each concept is the combination of (i) food supply (ii) services (iii) welfare offers like social and medical consultations and (iv) communication/community dialogue and (v) cultural offers—a combination that differentiates DORV from all other local (food) supply initiatives in Germany. This is, next to the local ownership, one of the main success factors. DORV takes the communities through the process of refining the concept, finding a location and building the DORV center, searching for local suppliers, negotiating contracts, as well as operational planning of staff and finances. After implementing the center, local community members actually run the center. During the first six months Frey also gives support as an operations consultant in order to strengthen local sustainability.
When choosing the local suppliers and products, five principles are applied: DORV only covers what the local population really needs, as many products/services as possible and necessary are grouped together, a regional focus and high-quality standards are applied, and new media is used (i.e. Internet/café, online services) in the DORV centers. By proceeding in this way, Heinz is able to foster regional identity as well as to form and sustain local supply chains with local producers.
The financing strategy of each local DORV center might differ a bit (i.e. start-up funding might be helpful in some cases and not needed in others). But, once established, the DORV centers operate without state funding and as financially sustainable and independent entities. This is because the model operates on a “no loss, no profit” model, with no fees for customers, and no returns for citizen co-owners. The local population agrees to become center customers once it is established. Also, the foundation of each DORV center is a support association and a financing co-operative with coupons (of €250 or US$342 in Barmen’s model), which in turn owns the operating limited liability company. Depending on the local situation the respective financing and ownership model can be diversified—to best meet local needs.
Today, the DORV model is formally replicated through a dedicated spin-off that helps communities conduct feasibility studies to activate their potential for a DORV center. So far, six DORV centers have been established successfully, another six are in the process of building and implementing, feasibility studies have been conducted for 30 communities. Heinz has another fifty communities on the waiting list, interested in applying his model and conducting their feasibility study. In addition, DORV has raised awareness about the issues of depopulation and local supply throughout the past years. Heinz has built up a national network and is involved in local planning processes such as an initiative called “New Village Centers”, which is to be implemented in a federal state (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) in Germany. Also, he has served as a consultant and role model to other initiatives, which have developed similar concepts in recent years or enriched existing concepts with aspects from the DORV model. Heinz very much welcomes the growing network and more stakeholder awareness. Most recently, Heinz is exploring the adaptation of the model for suburban communities.
Heinz was born in 1955 in Jülich, Germany, and is a high school teacher, local politician, and father of three. Following his motto that “Talking is nothing without acting,” he has been actively involved in village life throughout his life—as the founder of a variety of local initiatives and as voluntary leader of others. He knows the value of intact local communities for people of all ages, and understands the challenges of small rural communities.
In 2001, when the last local supplier closed, Heinz asked himself how he could offer his children surroundings worth living in their rural area. He started educating himself in the field of local supply, hurdles, chances and ways to create a sustainable concept. Within three years Heinz mobilized the local population, developed the DORV concept and opened the first DORV center. Ever since, he has been the voluntary director of the DORV initiative—in addition to his full-time job as a high school teacher. His goal is to work full-time growing the DORV initiative.
Heinz has deep interest in architecture (which he has studied) and history (publishing books on his village’s local history). Due to his broad knowledge and entrepreneurial mindset, he is convinced that rural areas need to have a future and will only have one if local populations, the economy and politics work together to create a surrounding worth living for, for all.