Convenience stores are important for a vibrant local community. Essential, one should say, for small towns, where you typically only find one such store. It’s like a pulsating heart. What provides the village life, but also vulnerability.
It doesn't take much to break even the most treasured convenience store: an ongoing power crisis, for one, and migration another. So, convenience stores need to become resilient if we are to preserve, and grow, life beyond cities. In close collaboration with Lokalt Byrå and the Finnmark-based architectural office Verte, we intend to find out how.
The assignment, titled "The convenience store of the future as a multi-functional place", arose as an innovative acquisition financed by the Merkur program – a governmental instrument to safeguard convenience stores as local and important infrastructure. Three such stores have been selected to participate in a pilot. Lokalt Byrå and ÆRA won the chance to work with Gamvik Handel in Finnmark.
Gamvik is a fishing village at the far end along the northernmost coast Norway, with approximately 280 inhabitants.
- Although the project is primarily about further developing the convenience store's role as a social infrastructure, it’s also, in our eyes, as much about business development, says Glenn Sæstad, one of the two partners in Lokalt Byrå.
Glenn runs the agency Lokalt Byrå together with Nikolai Sabel, who, after numerous projects together during studies at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, decided to start their own company. Their mission is to spread design methodology and good usage of design throughout the country, thereby contributing to pleasant, viable and sustainable local communities.
- Design competency tends to be reserved for cities and large municipalities. That's why Lokalt Byrå is built to suit smaller municipalities looking to hire someone to do innovation projects, preferably with a focus on collaboration across municipalities, residents, businesses and volunteers, Glenn continues.
Local Business Development
According to Glenn, this project is a perfect example of why green transition is as much about social sustainability and local development as business development.
Gamvik is experiencing economic growth and stable employment thanks to their local fish farm. However, their challenge is to attract new residents, and preferably entire families who will contribute to predictable population growth.
- Sustainable development in Gamvik is therefore not only about having enough and well-paid jobs, but equally about these families being able to envision good lives in their small community, Glenn explains.
Moreover, Gamvik’s permanent residents represent 12 different nationalities. To build relationships and citizenship across these languages and cultures, you need a place offering events and activities allowing for natural socializing.
- It’s easier to bond if you can, for example, cook, create something, play or dance together, adds Glenn. He thus hints at the importance of the convenience store of the future still being multifunctional, if not even more so than before.
It was natural for Lokalt Byrå to involve ÆRA in the procurement process of this project. ÆRA has played an important role in the creation of Lokalt Byrå.
- I had an internship in ÆRA while studying. It was an enormous learning experience in how to work structured and strategically with sustainable change. Both with complex topics and with complex organizations. When I revealed that I wanted to start my own agency to invest 100% in local communities, ÆRA’s partners reacted with incredible excitement, and wanted to help us succeed.
The agencies now happily collaborate on innovation projects revolving around smaller communities of Norway. Where ÆRA has expertise in design, sustainability and business development, Lokalt Byrå has expertise in design, sustainability and development of local communities.
- We speak the same language, but also have complementary differences. This makes for an easy match whenever there’s an opportunity to develop businesses rooted in local communities, preferably across municipalities, residents, volunteers and other local bodies, says Trygve Kolderup, responsible for the Gamvik project in ÆRA.
Back to Gamvik
The Gamvik project's main idea is creating "a local community workshop" within the convenience store. Design methodology and business modeling will be used to specify how such a place can be both built out and operated in Gamvik, exclusively resident-driven. With that comes an exciting challenge:
- We have to work a lot on gaining understanding and ownership of the concept across the 12 nationalities and languages it is intended for, says Glenn. Norwegian words such as "dugnad" and "friluftsliv", for example, have no immediate translation.
Common understanding is indeed important, as this project could lay the foundation of Gamvik’s future prospects, where community, stability and long-term optimism become its main characteristics.
- It’s about creating the offer that makes families and young people want to stay. This will in turn unlock other issues they are struggling with. Such as, for example, having enough human resources for kindergartens and schools, and a diversity of local businesses, Glenn continues.
Followed by Oxford Research
The aim of the project and the Merkur program as a whole is to establish something in Gamvik that all of Norway can learn from. Therefore, it is followed, among others, by researchers in Oxford Research.
- How a convenience store can become a key in the local community's social infrastructure, rather than just being a functional need, is of interest beyond Norway, says Trygve, praising Lokalt Byrå for highlighting the importance of local approaches to global challenges.
- Before looking outward, we should look more inward. There is a lot of untapped potential in Norwegian local communities, Glenn points out, describing it as Lokalt Byrå's main motivation.
Adaptable Lone Guns
Nikolai and Glenn are soon heading out on their first trip to Gamvik, where they’ll stay for five days – the standard length of a trip for them when trying to get under a local community’s skin.
The chosen accommodation is of course highly local and symbolic: an old lighthouse. Lokalt Byrå otherwise works closely with the local project group thanks to the rapid digitalization Norway went through during the pandemic.
- We are two adaptable "lone guns" who like to be on the move, where people actually are, connected to the local community, being able to find new opportunities, with new eyes, which contribute to the transition we are going through, concludes Glenn.