Unfortunately I have to agree with MLED, Engineering a solution to the problems of the world can be and are being done now, the problem is how do you stop corruption, greed, corporate domination, and lack of comprehension of what a better world is.
Engineers do have the power of knowledge, but they do not have control of that power. If you engineered a solution to all of societies problems, you would end up in a (short) lifetime of mental hell from the all the forces that profit from the destruction of a better world.
Why can we not feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, and not pollute? It is not from a lack of tech.
Welcome to Mr. Toads wild ride
Rich, have you not heard of Engineers Without Borders? Many universities have student chapters and many large metro areas have professional chapters. They (pros & students) often work on projects together.
If you're interested:
Also, although it can be a stretch for some activities---I'm reminded of a guy at TRW whose job was to test the rupture point of monkeys' eardrums, adjunct to determining similar parameters in humans, defense-related work of course---surely a lot of the "for-profit" engineering we all do is indeed benefiting many, including the poor and "down-trodden".
It is a prevalent assumption that determining the motivation of behavior is tantamount to establishing its moral value. But some of the most heinous acts have been done in the name of benevolence and "altruism".
Although my own ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological views have changed much over the years, I remind that Rand's advocacy of "selfishness", so often seized upon by those who did less than a close reading as prima facie evidence of her "fascist" tendencies and general badness, is only the bare suggestion of her ethics. The paramount idea is being guided by Reason. Now, that pregnant word means many things to many people of course.
There is an organization of which a dear couple's son, Dan Ramey, is a member, called Engineers Without Borders. They recently engineered and built a footbridge in Kenya that has helped the local villagers immensely. A google search will turn up the story, as of course I can't post a link here directly.
I would agree with the comments about the difficulty of supporting such efforts however. If you have been laid off these days, what is the likelihood that you can operate off of severance and savings at all, let alone fund the facilities and materials and so forth of some project? In the case of Engineers Without Borders, most of the folks have day jobs.
Look into the open source community. Open source (OS) software has been with us for quite a while and OS hardware is becoming a popular movement as well.
How does that fit into Richard's commentary? Most of the people doing these OS projects are doing so without thought of compensation. They hack and experiment and build and present the results to the broader community. They are keeping their skills sharp and helping to advance the state of the art. State of the art isn't just faster, smaller, bigger. It's also easier, less expensive and more accessible.
I don't know that it would be possible to count the number of volunteer OS software developers. Because of the OS movement, there is a powerful operating system suitable for use by the educated consumer (almost ready to the uneducated, but not quite) and very suitable for server applications. There is a complete office software suite, many image design and manipulation applications and a host of others. That makes computing more accessible for anyone around the world that doesn't have the money to pay for commercial packages.
Open source hardware, while different in that physical parts still have to be purchased, is also contributing. It has created educational tools and has given products that can be the foundation of powerful embedded systems. This makes the benefits of advanced electronics more accessible to anyone without the means or funding to develop it on their own.
Opensource started as an individual engineer movement, but is now also gaining support from the corporate world. Companies like Texas Instruments, Adafruit, Sparkfun and DIY Drones all contribute to the open source movement while running their businesses.
So, Richard, I would say that your idea is very sound. And, I'd also say that it is already well underway.
Before comments on me being too cynical or negative arise, if you really want to volunteer time - Engineers Without Borders (http://www.ewb-international.org/) will probably suit your needs.
Or a soup kitchen.
Or a homeless shelter.
Not all problems in the world are technical ones.
I really find myself against this. So called 'Noble work' at a pro-bono price has absolutely no value to society and ends up being expected.
I would ask that before you sign up for a 'Noble' project, you read 'Atlas Shrugged' to see what could happen in a society where you are 'expected' to use your talents.
Now if you want to work on something because you think it's cool as a hobby - that's a whole other kettle of fish. If others can use it, you have the right to do with it what you see fit.
Last time I checked, communism did not work.
Great ... so who pays for my materials and equipment for design? Who pays for prototypes, testing, etc.? Who arranges for distribution, etc?
It a great idea but perhaps not set in reality.
Maybe those who have made billions off of engineers could hire unemployed engineers to work on altruistic projects?